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The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Helen Ubiñas

Helen Ubiñas: Philly mayor’s latest comments hurt thousands of families of homicide victims

PHILADELPHIA — I didn’t come for Mayor Jim Kenney when he stepped in it a couple of weeks ago.

Even when he told reporters he’d “be happy” when he was not mayor anymore after the July Fourth shootings on the Parkway, I didn’t pounce or pile on — not that any of the resulting furor was unwarranted.

When you’re the mayor of the nation’s sixth largest city, which is buckling under the weight of gun violence, you might not want to publicly say that you’re looking forward to leaving, no matter how fed up or frustrated you are. (Kenney later apologized.)

But see, I was willing to entertain that, as unfortunate as his words were, they were the honest manifestation of the burnout many of us are feeling — even if we don’t say it out loud.

Because you know what? There are plenty of reasons to be exhausted. Just in Philadelphia alone, we’ve had more than 300 homicides so far this year and more than 1,300 shootings. Men, women, and children are shot and killed all over this country every day while the best we can seemingly do is pass the legislative equivalent of gun safety baby steps and essentially concede that there will be more bloodshed.

But then this week, during the city’s biweekly gun violence briefing, Kenney said he hadn’t met with any of the families of people who have been killed this year. When asked to clarify, he said he hadn’t met with these families in his seven years as mayor. That’s 2,664 families since he was sworn in as mayor in 2016.

“I’ve never met with any families in almost seven years in that regard,” Kenney said at a virtual news conference on the city’s gun violence crisis. “I’ve met with some children who have been shot — little babies who have been shot in cross fire — I’ve met with their families. But it’s not something that I’ve done from the time that I’ve started being mayor. I don’t know if any mayor has done that.”

I don’t know if that’s true. I doubt it. But that’s beside the point; comparing Kenney’s behavior with that of his predecessors tends to wax way too nostalgic about past mayors. They weren’t all that, either.

For better or worse, Jim Kenney is the mayor of Philadelphia right now, and so he is accountable for his actions and his words.

And after his latest comments, my inclination to empathize with a man who has admittedly had to contend with a global pandemic, a national reckoning on policing, and record gun violence has gone out the window.

You can’t be burned out if you’re not doing the job, and when gun violence is the most pressing issue in the city, meeting with families of shooting victims is the job.

His office tried to swoop in to clean up his latest mess and said that Kenney this year has, in fact, met with some family members — including mothers of homicide victims — through the Group Violence Intervention program.

I believe that. It is almost impossible to move around this city and not come into contact with someone who knows someone who was shot and killed.

In fact, in 2017, Kenney came to the Art Museum steps where I had called Philadelphians impacted by gun violence to gather and met some families there.

But there is a world of difference between meeting these families at events and hearings and news conferences and seeking them out where they are.

And where they are, Mayor Kenney, is sitting numbly on living room couches while talking about children who will never again walk through their front doors. Where they are, Mr. Mayor, is curled up in fetal positions in their child’s bedroom, surrounded by photos of young men and women frozen in time. Where they remain is waiting grief-stricken at home, their doors usually wide open for anyone who will listen to them.

I know this because I’ve walked through countless numbers of these doors.

By way of defending himself, Kenney said that it would be difficult to interact with people during ongoing investigations and that he didn’t know if it would be “productive to intercede while the investigation is going on.” But that’s a cop-out. No one is suggesting that the mayor interfere with investigations. Just as no one should suggest that he alone is to blame for the city’s unrelenting gun violence or responsible for solving its homicide cases — though, with fewer than half of fatal shootings solved, it would be nice if someone did.

There is plenty of blame to go around. But sitting in meetings and being briefed on the latest crime statistics by police brass is not a substitute for sitting with families during their darkest moments.

You can’t delegate your humanity — not as the mayor of a city where people are increasingly afraid for their safety, not with families who feel unseen and unheard and alone because, for the most part, they are.

Like the mother of Richard Taylor. Taylor, 33, was killed alongside Dresean Jefferson, 18, last month in a bizarre shooting. Two roommates said they shot the men in self-defense, but now police are investigating their claims.

Dionne Miller, who is undergoing dialysis treatments, is now left to mourn and wonder if she will ever get answers about her son’s death.

And then there is the family of 16-year-old Naadir Young, a KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy student who was shot seven times in a drive-by shooting near the school in May. He has undergone more than 20 surgeries and had one of his legs amputated.

I talked to his mother Nyderra Green and his great-aunt Darnetta Green-Mason about the mayor’s comments. Green works at the same hospital where her son is still struggling to recover. She told me her son got an unexpected visit from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts that lifted his spirits.

“It’s a discouraging thing to hear from the mayor,” Green-Mason said. Her son — Young’s cousin Erik — was killed in 2007, and his murder remains unsolved. “Families want to feel like they matter, like the lives of the people they love and miss matter.”

After the mayor’s comments, I asked families of homicide victims to reach out if they wanted to meet with him. Many did, and are still.

In many ways, they share the mayor’s exhaustion.

Unlike him, however, they don’t get to delegate their pain.

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