Over the course of the Fall Semester myself and three other group members were tasked with the responsibility of investigating homicides within the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia over the past few months. This was a joint project between my Civic Media class and a Sociology class, Crime and Urban Communities, at Saint Joseph’s University.
So many homicides occur within the city’s borders every year that often the victims of these tragedies become somewhat of a number or statistic. Their stories are often left untold by the media because of their volume and re-occurrence. The goal of this project was to investigate the homicides and obtain as much information about the victims. This proved to be difficult because many of the victims were difficult to find on the internet, and our attempts at gaining more information from the Police department proved unfruitful. This is where we encountered some ethical issues. Certainly, we could have kept pushing for information. But perhaps the families of the victims wished to keep their loved ones unnamed.
Upon obtaining six names, we dug deeper to understand the specifics of their murders and their relationships within the community. We found pictures, social media posts, and remembrances of some of these people taken too soon, as well as specific circumstances of their homicides such as suspects and locations.
Seeing the faces of these victims begged the question, “why”? Why do these tragedies happen in these areas? Of course, the real cause is evil within those who pull the trigger. But that evil can be partly understood by exploring the socioeconomic history and potential indicators of violence within the community. Through research, we discovered the high levels of addiction to drugs and alcohol present, poverty levels, and school quality. These all can undoubtedly put people in bad places mentally, and situations socially, causing violence.
To better understand the community, we also physically went to the community to take pictures and interview a community leader. When we went to Strawberry Mansion, we saw run down homes, homeless people, and overall depression. Doing this was an important part in coming to grips with the day to day life that people who live there experience.
We visited the 1700 Block of N Stanley Street around 11:00 am, and just four hours later, a man was shot in his living room on the same block. I discovered this when scrolling through twitter that evening. At first, I was concerned that I could have been exposed to that same violence. But realizing that I read that tweet in a safe environment, with running water, and heat opened my eyes to my own privilege of being able to leave the neighborhood. Many people who live there probably wouldn’t choose to, but they have to.
The community leader we interviewed was Rev. Steve Thoryn, pastor at St. Martin De Porres Church. His comments gave us a better understanding of what it is like within the community as far as quality of life, the effects of gentrification, and the presence of violence.
I would say that this project “complicated,” my perspectives of homicides. I have seen them on the news all my life, as I have grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. From a young age, I remember watching the news and seeing the killings almost every night and thinking that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from that kind of situation. I may have even viewed the victims as “statistics.” But through this project I have come to better understand these victims as real people, with a history, with loved ones, who have just found themselves in horrible circumstances.
Something that surprised me the most in completing this project is the large number of homicides committed in the city. I knew the number was high, but not as high as what I researched. 11 people were killed in just the Strawberry Mansion section in the spreadsheet that we were provided. Our professor also highlighted that 280 people were killed in the year 2015 alone throughout the city. Reflecting on all those people who have died over the years out of violence was humbling and saddening.
As mentioned above, learning more about the community itself, such as its indicators of violence, added to my own understanding of homicides in cities. A video by ABC World News inside Strawberry Mansion High School, which we included on our project, was shocking to me. Seeing the violence within the school pointed right to the violence on the street. I believe that education is so important in forming people into well rounded citizens. It would be very hard to become that kind of person within a hostile environment such as that at Strawberry Mansion High School.
The most impactful part of this entire process, which helped me in seeing these victims as humans, and not, “a number,” was the story and testimony of one of the victim’s mothers. Felicia Pendleton is the mother of Jayvon Mitchel- Pendleton who was murdered on March 2, 2016. Upon his death, she has become an advocate against gun violence. She shared her story to the Philadelphia City Council, and was interviewed by the Huffington Post (Found on our StoryMap) Watching her talk about her son, and the grief she experiences, helped me to see these victims as people more than anything else.
A suggestion I would make to humanize these victims to the public would be for the state to offer free or less costly funeral planning services to families. Giving families the opportunity to write something about their loved one with a picture in the paper or internet could give them a final chance to tell the real story of the victim’s life. No one, no matter the circumstances or history, should be limited to, “Black 25-year old man killed in drug deal gone wrong.” The headline should read something more like, “Caring son of Felicia taken home to God. He loved to laugh and to spend time with his family.”