Philadelphia’s Fight Against Gun Violence, Poverty, and Crime

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / Black Lives Matter Speech (Shutterstock).

In 1969, the New York Times named Philadelphia the “gang capital” of America when the city had the highest rates of gang-related violence in the country: 45 murders and 267 injuries. By 1970, over 50 juvenile gangs operated in Philadelphia and most homicide victims were youth and innocent bystanders like seven-year-old Antoinette Williams, who was killed by a stray bullet that struck her in the face as she sat on her North Philadelphia stoop occupied with her coloring book. That year, City Council members demanded that Mayor James H.J. Tate reduce the police department’s $81.9 million budget and carve out more funding for the Welfare Department to employ 100 gang control workers to curb juvenile delinquency on city streets for Fiscal Year 1971. “It’s more important to spend money for crime prevention, than for increasing the police budget, which is apprehension of the criminals once crimes are committed,” argued Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas McIntosh.1 However, McIntosh’s plea went unanswered by the mayor. From 1970 onward, the police’s budget continuously increased, ballooning to over $150 million by 1976 as spending for public welfare declined.

During the 1970s, there were 3,907 homicides in Philadelphia. These tragedies are in part consequences of Philadelphia’s history of segregation, poverty, slum housing, job discrimination, and racially-biased policing that helped create the social conditions for these events to occur. Many social activists recognize that social inequality, not racial inferiority, is responsible for the racial disparity that exists between white and non-white communities in regard to poverty, violence, and crime. From as early as 1899, sociological studies like W.E.B. DuBois’s Philadelphia Negro explained that socioeconomic inequality, housing discrimination, and racial violence often created the conditions in which Black people fell into poverty, illiteracy, vice, and crime. DuBois also stressed that Black people were not inherently immoral or criminal, as influential pseudoscientists of the era asserted. Racist myths often encouraged wealthier residents to view the Black poor as threats to middle-class and all-white communities. This contributed to residents using the law and violence to strengthen residential segregation in their neighborhoods, notably during the Great Migration when 6.6 million Southern Black migrants inhabited Northern cities above the Mason-Dixon line where the percentage of African Americans was below 10% of the population.

From the 1890s onward, white and Black philanthropists, social workers, and college-aged volunteers established settlement houses like the Octavia Hill Association, the Whittier Centre, and the Wharton Centre to provide the Black poor with decent housing, employment, healthcare, and rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents. From the 1920s through the 1960s, sociologists discovered that youth in marginalized communities often became gang members because they felt ostracized in their society and desired to be accepted in some sort of community. Frederic Thrasher argued that poverty, social ostracism, and the desire for social belonging were influential factors in the formation of juvenile gangs. However, inclusive institutions with positive and influential mentors was a solution to gang activity.

In the 1930s, community activists from North Philadelphia’s Wharton Centre created the anti-gang program, “Operation Street Corner” to counteract the rise of youth gangs that they attributed to the “social problems and neighborhood conditions” of generational unemployment, crime, and a lack of childcare for working adults.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Black social workers used participant observation to study, interact with, and rehabilitate gang members with athletics, weekly dances, trips, social clubs, and educational programs. This tradition of Black guardianship of juvenile gang members set a precedent for activists to utilize rehabilitative social welfare programs rather than tough-on-crime policing in response to gang violence. Policymakers, however, have often rejected rehabilitative social welfare in favor of punitive policies intended to quickly curb crime.

In the 1960s, sociologists like Lewis Yablonsky argued that youth gang activity was a reaction to community ostracism and socioeconomic disadvantage. While some gangs were “friendship organizations” with supposed codes of brotherhood, other gangs functioned as an outlet to channel [the] frustrations, aggressions, and hostilities they have about “school, family, the neighborhood, prejudice, or any other problems” into gang wars. Furthermore, as many social scientists have pointed out, including historian Eric Schneider, there is a correlation between social ostracism (based on race, class, and wealth) and violence that beckons us to pay attention if we are to preserve human life by ensuring racial equity.

In 1970, Philadelphia’s poverty rate was 15.4% while the national average was 12.2%. Along with poverty, gang violence was also a serious issue in the 1970s. Philadelphia’s Police Department recorded the existence of over 200 gangs and an average of 390 murders per year. Even though 1.5% of all youth were involved in gang activity during that era, the Gang Control Unit reported that up to 96% of gang members were Black and over 50% of gang homicides occurred in deindustrialized North Philadelphia, where nearly two-thirds of the city’s Black population lived.

By the 1970s, some journalists writing news articles about crime often featured provocative research data from social scientists to legitimize the belief that there was a correlation between increased migration and rising crime among different ethnic and racial groups. In 1975, gang research cultivated by anthropologist Walter B. Miller of Harvard Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice was publicized in dozens of newspapers around the country promoting the racist idea that new migrants brought violence and crime to urban cities. In Miller’s 1975 monograph, Violence by Youth Gangs and Youth Groups as a Crime Problem in Major American Cities, he explained how after studying the gang situation in twelve cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1970s gang violence was greater than the gang activity of the 1950s because youth in gangs were less formally organized, more likely to use guns, and more active in schools. Additionally, Miller’s research identified “low-income ghettos” as havens for gang violence, suggesting that poverty begot crime, but also arguing that youth of color were more prone to criminal activity than their white counterparts. In his study, Miller argued that ethnic populations with recent migrants and low-skilled laborers “produced” gangs. According to Miller, “white ethnics” dominated gangs in American society from the 1880s through 1920s as a result of mass immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and now Black youth were the “most heavily represented” in the gang populations during the 1970s because of the Great Migration. In the 1970s, Miller’s racially-biased research triggered fear amongst city officials who wanted to curb gang violence to prevent white flight from neighborhoods adjacent to communities of color. Moreover, his report convinced journalists and city councils across America that the best way to retain the white and middle-class taxpayers was to invest in the police department.

In contrast, African American-led organizations like the Black Panther Party and the House of Umoja did not believe that criminality was an inherent trait of recent migrants or people of color, so they spent generations fighting poverty along with the intra- and interracial violent crime that touched their neighborhoods. These organizations were conscious of the many ways that institutional racism, poverty, and police brutality damage the Black community. Therefore, they offered Philadelphia’s Black communities jobs, anti-gang activism, education, therapy sessions, recreation for juveniles, and anti-poverty initiatives like food and clothing drives to curb crime. Despite all the programs these progressive groups fostered to facilitate change, we unfortunately still see some politicians, journalists, and everyday citizens continue to deploy stigmatizing crime narratives, endorse hyper-surveillance, and support biased policing today against communities of color.

Today, not much has changed. Philadelphia’s poverty rate is approximately 23%, with some neighborhoods experiencing up to 45% of its residents living below the poverty line. Additionally, poverty rates are disproportionate to the racial makeup of the city. Although Black, white, and Latino residents comprise 41.5%, 39%, and 15.2% of Philadelphia’s population respectively, among the over 354,000 people impoverished in Philadelphia 47.8% are Black, 26.5% are Latino, and 24% are white. In the past five years, the average homicide rate has been approximately 417 murders with at least 80% of the victims being Black. These statistics demonstrate there is clearly a racial disparity in how white people and people of color have access to social resources that determine an individual’s ability to achieve financial stability and disinclination to engage in poverty-induced crime and violence.

For decades, major cities like Philadelphia have struggled with both poverty and gun violence. Social uplift organizations of the past spent decades demonstrating that racial equity is the key to ending socioeconomic ostracism and crime, but people in power are still investing more government money and resources in policing than social welfare programs. In fact, many American cities are allocating between 15 and 45% of their municipal budget spending for policing, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars divested from schools, libraries, community centers, and public housing each year. Today, Philadelphia spends approximately 15% of its budget on policing, roughly over $700 million. Interestingly, over the years community activists from groups like Cradle to Grave and Mothers-in-Charge have demonstrated that social welfare programs offering food, housing, education, mentorship, recreation, and access to employment are still viable solutions to both poverty and violent crime. Nevertheless, city officials, police officers, and the general public should be fully invested and committed to social equality. Then, just maybe there will be actual change seen through decreased rates of poverty-induced crime, incarceration, unemployment, recidivism, and the loss of precious lives like Antoinette Williams.

  1. Bill Fidati “Council Eyes Money for More Gang Workers,” Philadelphia Daily News, 28 April 1970), 3
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.

Comments on “Philadelphia’s Fight Against Gun Violence, Poverty, and Crime

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