Voices appeal for a halt to killing

A community meeting in Southwest Phila. came as the violence continued. "It's a war going on," said one man.

People talked about the need to take back their neighborhood, to heal the community, to help the young, but for the short term, they focused on one immediate goal: to try to get through a Philadelphia summer without more blood running in the streets.

Last night, at the end of a warm, sun-kissed day that held the promise of the new season's heat, more than 150 people gathered in Southwest Philadelphia to call for a truce on the gun violence that is claiming lives by the score. As of last night, 104 people had been slain this year in the city.

"It's a war going on," said Donald Cave, who spoke during the gathering at Longstreth Elementary School. It's gotten so bad, Cave said, that his brother in Iraq recently contacted him to ask, "Do you need me to send you anything?"

Southwest community members, organizers and elected leaders gathered the same night that Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson and other ranking police officials began patrolling high-crime areas across the city. The patrols are designed to bolster police presence by putting 140 officials on the streets once a week from 6 to 10 p.m. Johnson kicked off the program during a roll call at the 25th District in North Philadelphia.

Capt. Daniel Castro was among the senior officers on patrol last night - not as a supervisor, he said, but as an extra pair of eyes and ears to support police officers on the beat and the communities in which they work.

"When we were growing up, we played dodgeball. Kids today are playing dodge bullets," said Castro, who leads the forensic-science unit. "The other thing that's frustrating is, we're dealing with a culture of don't snitch. . . . We can't lock up people if we don't get information."

Despite the well-publicized deployment of 80 additional officers last month, along with continuing displays of police presence, violence continues to rage in Southwest Philadelphia.

On Sunday, a man named Steve Rodgers was found shot to death in his apartment in the 7000 block of Woodland Avenue. In the 1900 block of South Redfield Street, a woman was shot several times on Friday night - she survived, and police arrested her ex-husband, Bruce Robinson, 26, charging him with aggravated assault.

Authorities said Robinson, driving by, stopped his car when he saw a man going into his ex-wife's house. Robinson argued with the man, then told two companions to shoot him, police said. The two men blasted away - sending the man fleeing and wounding the 39-year-old woman, who remains hospitalized. A warrant has been issued for another suspect in the case, Mitchell Williams, 26.

Yesterday, police said they had identified the victim - and arrested a suspect - in the case of a woman who was found bludgeoned, her head wrapped in a plastic bag, in a Kensington lot Saturday. Eric Johnson, 36, of the 2000 block of East Clearfield Street, was charged with murder, abuse of a corpse, and possession of an instrument of crime in the death of Jean Jackson, 41, of the same address.

Meanwhile, in Southwest Philadelphia, several young men on the block waved their hands and shook their heads as a reporter approached, indicating they had nothing to say about the Robinson shooting or violence in the neighborhood.

Mark Harrell, executive director of the antiviolence group Men United for a Better Philadelphia, who lives in the area, said that in 2002, when police initiated Operation Safe Streets, a program that targeted crime-plagued neighborhoods, "it gave the community a chance to breathe."

But since then "this section has been caught up in the web that has gripped the rest of the city, that is, too many guns," he said. "Now the gun is the means of conflict resolution."

Harrell said his organization, which brings men to street corners to talk to young people about the perils of violence, crime and drugs, was trying to increase its presence.

"Our message is real simple: Put down the guns."

That call was seconded by dozens who gathered at the Longstreth school last night for the sometimes contentious "Men Step-Up Meeting" sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.).

Williams said he was not there as a politician: "My name is Tony Williams. I live here. And I'm scared to death. I've got a wife and two daughters."

Not everyone agreed. As Williams continued, decrying neighborhood violence and gunfire, he was interrupted by a man who said the senator was being insulting.

"I'm offended," the man said. "I live here. I don't walk in fear."

"There are a lot of people who do," Williams said, provoking loud applause.

Men were asked to sign the "Step Up for Southwest Philadelphia Pledge," a promise to refrain from gun violence and encourage others to do the same. The gathering was advertised as the first in a series aimed at protecting women and children from gun violence during the summer. In interviews at the meeting, person after person said he or she was frightened that gunfire would claim his or her own life, or that of someone he or she loved.

"It can happen at any time," said Ramique Walton, 26, who was holding his 10-month-old son, Jihad. "It's not just violence. It's senseless violence."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Joseph A. Gambardello contributed to this article.