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Spring 2012 Columnist headshots Credit: Aya Saed , Justin Cohen


No, this does not refer to the number of tweets still circulating about Beyonce’s baby. Rather, it is the number of homicides that occurred in Philadelphia last year. Our utopian campus is located in the heart of a leading city in the country … leading in homicide cases, that is.

The dismal nature of violence in Philadelphia lays out two big issues. Firstly, it demonstrates how the economic downturn has affected violence in low-income neighborhoods. Secondly, it exemplifies the exclusive nature of Penn within the city. Penn students cannot remain bystanders as more and more citizens fall victim to gun violence. We should, instead, take on these issues as active residents of Philadelphia.

Over the past three years, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has increased from 302 to 306 to 324. In 2011, the average homicide rate in Philadelphia was 20.7 per 100,000 people — the highest out of the most-populated cities in the United States. Chicago, which came second, had a rate of 15.7 per 100,000.

This is no new issue. Homicide rates in the city have fluctuated dramatically over the past decade, reaching a high of 406 in 2006. Organizations such as Heeding God’s Call — an interfaith advocacy group that campaigns against illegal gun purchases by working with gun shops — have worked at combating this problem.

In 2009, Heeding God’s Call shut down Colosimo’s, which was violating federal firearm laws. It also works with shop owners in adopting a gun code. As Director Bryan Miller said, “We believe in the power of moral suasion. Until the shop owner agrees to the gun code, we rally peacefully in front of the store, sing, pray and hold Friday services.”

“So far,” he added, “we have been very effective in ensuring that fewer guns are going to the street and in mobilizing and creating new activists for preventing gun violence. That’s where we need Penn students to come in.”

CBS News reported this week that the homicide rate amongst African Americans in Pennsylvania is nearly six times the national average. But our Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey views this not as a racial issue but a socio-economic one. As College senior Megan Reed, president of Penn’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said, “I believe that there is a direct link between crime and lack of educational/economic opportunity. Many African American children find themselves falling behind in literacy which subsequently affects their educational advancement.”

Penn organizations such as the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and Civic House delve into the economic and educational roots of the issue, they should consider expanding to partner with violence control activists and coalitions.

This is not meant to criticize existing student engagement, which has been increasing over the past few years. Tina Ciocco, the administrative assistant to Netter Center Director Ira Harkavy, wrote in an email that participation has increased by “hundreds more total students engaged as volunteers, work-study community service, and academic interns” over the past five years. ABCS classes, which began in 1991 with four course offerings, has grown exponentially to 60 courses offered annually in the past several years.

Penn students are eager to integrate themselves into the community and ensure that things change for the better. But it’s time to also gather momentum in combating an issue of life and death.

Referring to Penn’s location in West Philadelphia, an area with serious homicide problems, Miller stated, “there are many people in West Philly who are leading such campaigns and their natural allies are Penn students. Penn students who would participate would not only be doing something good for their college, they would also be doing something good for their city.”

It may be easy to say that college students, living here for only four years, have no impact on local issues. To that, I say: history has shown the power of student impact. From the Vietnam War protests in the 1970s, to the recent Greek and British student protests against increasing tuition and the recent success students rallying against PNC Bank for their mountaintop-removal practices — young people have been rising to the stand.

We are not here simply to get a degree, a job and then leave, but to become engaged citizens of the city and to take on its most tragic issues. We refuse to stand by and let another victim fall to the system. So, what are we waiting for?

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