While some members of the Philadelphia community have remained optimistic that Mayor Jim Kenney will fulfill his recent commitment to address the city's gun violence crisis, one activist is back on a hunger strike, claiming Kenney has not lived up to his promises.
After completing a 26-day hunger strike outside of City Hall, which he undertook with the hope of motivating Kenney to address Resolution No. 200447, 63-year-old veteran and activist Jamal Johnson has started another hunger strike, alleging inaction on behalf of the City of Philadelphia. The resolution, which was introduced by Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier on Sept. 10, 2020, namely calls on Kenney to declare a city-wide emergency on gun violence and implement specific measures such as the Roadmap to Safer Communities, a five-year plan to address gun violence, and the creation of an intervention program for youth involved in or near gun violence.
Johnson ended his hunger strike the day he met with Kenney on Feb. 12, during which he said the mayor promised to implement some aspects of the resolution. But after receiving no response to an email he sent to the mayor's office one week later, Johnson resumed his hunger strike on March 1.
According to Johnson, who said he is still recovering from the lonely and physically draining days of his first strike, Kenney promised that he would be more transparent with the city's actions on gun violence and would host public briefings on the issue. In addition, Johnson stated that he was promised by the mayor's special assistant, Louisa Mfum-Mensah, that she would keep him updated on Kenney's actions — but Johnson said Mfum-Mensah never contacted him after he reached out to her and that he has also seen no progress by the mayor on the resolution.
"The bottom line is that the mayor and I — or the mayor, his staff, and I — could have passed this up, but no one made any attempt to reach me, to respond to my calls or my email, and as a result, that's why I am where I am today," Johnson said.
In response to these allegations, a city spokesperson sent a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian on behalf of the mayor's office on March 3, emphasizing that the city does not encourage actions like Johnson's strike.
"We do want to underscore that, while we support the rights of all residents to peacefully protest, we do not encourage anyone to take actions that may jeopardize their health in the process," the city spokesperson wrote. "The administration looks forward to working with all community members who have a wide range of views on this issue as we work toward creating safe and healthy communities together.”
The city spokesperson also stated that, despite unprecedented budget gaps as a result of the pandemic, the administration is still continuing to make efforts to address gun violence through updating its policies, hosting public briefings, and updating Philadelphia's Roadmap to Safer Communities.
The spokesperson stated that the updated Roadmap will refocus the city's efforts on five areas of the city with the highest levels of gun violence, allocating resources and enhancing coordination with police.
In a separate statement sent on behalf of the mayor's office on Feb. 22, the city spokesperson wrote that, in addition to updating the Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities, the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety has been restructured in order to "oversee the holistic work of gun violence reduction and strengthening neighborhood assets."
Sajda Blackwell, the owner of PQRadio1.com, who connected Johnson with the mayor after interviewing the activist on her show, said that, like Johnson she wants the city to take action to reduce gun violence, but feels that if the resolution is used, it needs improvement. She explained that she is not fully in support of the current version of the resolution because she believes it needs to give Philadelphia residents a greater say in where extra policing is needed and what type of gun violence reduction methods should be used in their communities.
“We the people know where these areas are and can tell you where we want the extra policing,” Blackwell said. “We can tell you where we want the curfews. We know what to do, so let the people talk.”
Blackwell also stated that, whether or not Kenney implements the resolution, she is not confident that the strategies listed in the resolution will be effective toward curbing gun violence.
While other Philadelphia residents and Penn affiliates are more optimistic about the actions of Kenney, they emphasized that he still needs to be held accountable for addressing residents' concerns.
Jessica Craft, a city resident, co-created and submitted a petition demanding that Kenney address the city's gun violence crisis to his office on Feb. 17 after it earned over 1,300 signatures.
Craft stated that, while she thinks it is nice that Kenney is promising to address the resolution, she hopes to see him put those promises into action.
“I think he will end up doing some of the things, and I think that that was some of the hope all along,” Craft said. “While [I am] hoping that he would implement the entire resolution and the actions within, even having more press briefings, and transparency, and accountability is a huge step.”
Craft stated that her petition’s planning group will continue to meet and plan its next steps and projects.
College Junior Michael Nevett, the co-founder and policy director of the March for Our Lives chapter at Penn, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that Kenney will keep his promises to implement the resolution, adding that he still needs to be held accountable.
After Nevett's own experience with supporting a Philadelphia lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania in order to give local municipalities more control over local gun safety regulation, he stated that, alongside Kenney’s city-wide actions, actions need to occur on the state level.
“If you're a municipality, you're not allowed to pass your own gun laws, so not only do we have weak gun laws on the federal level, but the state isn't doing anything,” Nevett said. “Rather, they're preventing places like Philadelphia from being able to institute a lot of the reforms that we need to see.”
Philadelphia's gun violence crisis is bleeding into the city's hospitals, where Elinore Kaufman, a fellow in surgical critical care and trauma at Penn Medicine, stated that she sees the long-term effects of gun violence of which most people are unaware.
Kaufman stated that, while it is good that twice as many people survive from gunshot wounds than die, this still leaves many people with physical limitations and long-lasting pain, adding that they often have difficulties returning to work or school and are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She also emphasized that gun violence impacts not only the individual, but their families as well.
“That’s the individual, but it also extends to families and communities,” Kaufman said. “So I think, as bad as it seems, the impact is actually even wider than many people know.”
Kaufman, who supports the resolution, added that there are two benefits to gun violence being viewed as a public health emergency — it allows people to focus on how gun violence affects people, and also allows the public health perspective to center on what strategies to combat gun violence are effective and how they can be measured, adjusted, and replicated.
“We are losing people," Kaufman said. "People are getting hurt every day, many times a day, and it's been going on for a long time. But it's also gotten worse."
Although the route to reducing gun violence in Philadelphia may be unclear, residents largely remain optimistic that the city will eventually arrive at an effective solution.
“If we put our minds to it and work together, there is no reason that we cannot get this problem under control,” Kaufman said. “We've got some things going against us — we have poverty, we have segregation, and we have all kinds of resources that we're missing — but I think that we can make a difference.”
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