Violence, poverty, racism, and classism are all real in one of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. What must happen to fix it is a holistic, community-driven, trauma-informed strategy.
By Dr. Bill McKinney, Executive Director
A version of this essay was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
For many hearing the story of nine people being shot in Kensington on Saturday, November 5, the mass shooting is the story. But I would like to start a couple of days earlier.
I would look to Friday night when one and a half blocks from our offices, over 100 shots were fired, with two people hit. I would go to Saturday night when, in the exact same spot as the night before, another 40-plus shots were fired.
Then I would get to the Saturday night shooting making the news, 100 feet from the area’s public transit hub, 100 feet from the area’s only health center, 300 feet from a childcare provider, and 300 feet from where, just a few months ago, someone ran over and killed several people with an SUV. This was a mass shooting in a critical hub of our community where there has been tragedy after tragedy for years.
A moment away from losing it
Like neighborhood residents and other nonprofits, my team members and I at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation are under constant pressure from an increase in violent crime in the neighborhood. We are being directly threatened by people selling drugs on either side of our headquarters — a building that serves both as our offices and as housing for more than four dozen families.
After the mass shooting, like other Kensington residents, I started receiving emails and texts from friends, family, and colleagues as they went through the unfortunately regular check-ins to make sure I was okay.
On Sunday morning, I went to the site of the mass shooting, and you never would have known it happened. There was no police tape, no patrol cars; there was just trash blowing in the wind, unsheltered folks, and the world going about its business as if the tragedy didn’t exist anywhere except on the Citizen app and in the news. Maybe there was a presence from the city, from the police, from nonprofits, but I didn’t see it.
What I felt as a resident was that everyone already had moved on. But moving on is a privilege; it’s only an option for those not directly affected, those who don’t already live in fear as they go about their daily lives.
I walked home along Kensington Avenue and, on my way, passed an encampment of unhoused people. I had to walk into the street because the sidewalk was choked with thick smoke from the fires keeping people warm, and their suffering was real. I arrived at F Street and Kensington Avenue where, just that morning, yet another shooting had jolted me awake. But like the site of the mass shooting on Allegheny, there was no evidence anything had occurred. Everyone had moved on.
By mid-morning I was fielding emails from residents that were directed to city officials, sharing their anger and frustration, how they felt they had been abandoned, that our lives did not matter. A couple hours later I went outside to get some air and 300 feet from my house a pickup truck had driven beside a police car and the driver was screaming at the officer through a bullhorn. The driver then rammed the police car and all hell broke loose. I spoke to a couple of people and asked if they knew who the driver was and they said he came to the park to preach regularly. One man told me, “Everyone out here is just a moment away from completely losing it.”
We can’t arrest our way out
Violence, poverty, racism, classism are all real in Kensington. We aren’t going to gentrify our way out of this — we will only displace the issues. We aren’t going to pontificate or hand-wring our way out of this. We aren’t going to arrest our way out of this. Yes, the city, the police, the District Attorney all have roles, but they are pieces of a much larger puzzle — what needs to be a holistic, community-centered, trauma-informed strategy addressing employment, education, housing, addiction, and ultimately violence.
One of the hardest things for me to say to my colleagues, to residents, to anyone, is that this will not be the last time — this will not be the last tragic story about Kensington — because I know that the structural changes that are necessary take time. But I think these tragic moments are opportunities to pivot toward a reality where we recognize that solutions lie within every stakeholder, whether they are a neighborhood resident or from city government. To get to greater solutions and address the community’s needs, we must be able to hold many approaches at once. We must address this moment while charting a course to address structural issues.
We must recognize the trauma of this moment — which builds off the trauma of a lifetime — and how it impacts people’s immediate responses to these tragedies. As I explained to a police official later on Sunday, this is not a time to rattle off statistics or challenge people’s realities; it is a moment for everyone to be present, to listen, and acknowledge the emotions and feelings people are experiencing. It is an opportunity to build trust, encourage collaboration, and support empowerment.
“I ask you to allow yourselves to feel…even when you don’t want to because you don’t have solutions.”
This is a time to reset
This is a time to reset. I ask folks who read about the tragedy on Saturday night to not allow themselves to simply go about their lives. I ask you to realize that these are not simply the isolated actions of bad actors; this is the culmination of decades of collapse and this collapse is impacting a whole community, which is often demonized for wanting something better for itself.
I ask you to allow yourselves to feel for what Kensington is going through even when you don’t want to feel because you don’t have solutions. Feel and hear other people’s feelings. Please don’t move on as if nothing happened, as if we are not human beings who are suffering. Don’t normalize the daily tragedy of the area. I also ask folks to stop trying to quiet the real emotions we feel, and instead be a part of addressing the structural issues that got us here.
I ask that you bring what you have to the table and add it to a holistic, community-driven, trauma-informed strategy to addressing priorities identified by the community. We cannot wait for any heroes, and depending only on the same systems that led to the current situation is another mistake.
I ask you to be willing to do things differently, just as everyday I’m challenging myself and my organization to do. Please join in not repeating past mistakes and please do not move on as if nothing happened. Use this moment as an opportunity to pivot.