Rosalind Pichardo came with a casket full of gun casings.
Kathryn Pannepacker came with a healing blanket that had started out with squares to represent each gun death. until there were just so many she now hangs tags on it to represent each lost life.
Mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters came with huge photos of loved ones frozen in time by the bullets that took their lives.
— Casey Kammerle (@CKammerle7) June 15, 2017
Some came alone.
The family and friends of Samir Fortune, an 18-year-old who was killed in February, showed up about 50 strong.
And then there were the trauma nurses from Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Janet McMaster and Rhonda Browning, who even after years of being on the front lines of life and death cried on the steps of the Art Museum as they looked at the dozens of photos of victims and wondered if they had tended to them. If they had tried to soothe them when they begged them not to let them die, if they had been the ones to deliver the worst kind of news to the families gathered on the steps.
In “the room,” they said in unison. The room that, even before families hear the news, means it’s bad.
I didn’t know who or what to expect when I called Philadelphians touched by violence to the Art Museum steps Thursday.
I had put out the call last year with very little notice, in the wake of the massacre in Orlando, so that the fleeting conversation the nation was having about gun violence wouldn’t pass without our making note of the relentless toll that violence takes on our city.
This year’s gathering came a day after a rifleman opened fire at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia, wounding several people, including the House majority whip, Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana. And in the midst of our own bloodshed.
Last I checked: 140 murders and 636 shootings this year in which 528 people were hit.
Behind those numbers are the heartbroken, the traumatized, the ones often left behind to deal with their loss on their own.
“When you lose a son or a family relative, you don’t get a GPS, there’s no GPS to point you in the direction that you want to go,” said Wilfredo Rojas. Rojas’ son Alejandro “Alex” Rojas-Garcia was killed in 2015.
That’s part of what I hoped for by asking people touched by violence to come together on the steps. So often, these deaths are seen as individual losses. Some guy in North Philly, a woman in West Philly, a teenager in West Oak Lane. But by calling the survivors together, I hoped, maybe we would start to see the breadth of the toll gun violence is taking in our city. Maybe visually seeing a mass of people who share a common loss would force us to focus, to care more.
On my way to represent my brother Richard Davila one of the fourth homicides of 2016 !! Please come on out and show support .. https://t.co/fG1vZajULd
— Carmen Pagan (@csharpe_c) June 15, 2017
At the very least, maybe the families left to deal with their loss on their own wouldn’t feel so alone. I was glad to see Mayor Kenney on the steps, and Councilman David Oh, who was stabbed last month during an attempted robbery outside his Southwest Philly home. More than a few gathered were also impressed to see Jack O’Neill, who recently lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney.
— Jim Kenney (@PhillyMayor) June 15, 2017
These families are desperate to be heard by people who they believe, who they hope, can do something about the violence that so many in the city fear will come for them one day.
Ryan Hightower, 18, stood on the side of the steps as others prepared for a group photo. He was there with other friends of Fortune, the teen killed in February. He conceded that he worries about a similar fate, and then, as if he sensed he had said too much, that he let the mask of adolescent bravado slip, he quickly added, “We all got to go someday.”
Not at 18. Not by gun violence that leaves behind a wake of destruction and despair.
— Helen Ubiñas (@NotesFromHeL) June 15, 2017
Silvia Barreto held two photos on the steps. In her left hand, one of her 17-year-old son, killed 20 years ago, still unsolved. In her right, her 38-year-old daughter Cristina Tosado, killed in February.
“I don’t have too long in this world,” she cried. “I want justice for my children. There are too many lives being lost in Philadelphia and nothing is being done about it.”
Staff writer Genevieve Glatsky contributed to the reporting for this column.