The Streets of Killadelphia


Philadelphia Bicentennial Celebration, 4 July 1976. Photograph by David King

by Eric Schneider

Murder is nearly always understood as an individual event and the criminal justice system reinforces this notion: there is an artifact, a body, that needs accounting for, and the medical examiner measures, weighs, dissects and categorizes the body as to age, race, gender and cause of death. The police scramble to find clues, to discover a likely motive, and then to close the case by making an arrest. Prosecutors and defenders craft narrow cases, often leaving out larger explanations that might provide context for a murder because they could provide an opening for an opponent to suggest incriminating or exculpatory factors. And judges urge attorneys to keep to the immediate “facts” of the case, without exploring the root causes of a homicide. Juries are instructed in the mechanics of law and how to apply it in the case before them. Justice is then apportioned individually, and responsibility is measured, usually in a number of years — or lifetimes — that a convicted murderer serves, or with a death sentence.

Digging underneath individual cases suggests something different. Murders are not distributed randomly across populations or throughout a metropolitan region. Rather there are landscapes of death and murder clusters among the same groups and in the same neighborhoods across long periods of time. In Philadelphia — which has had the highest or the second highest homicide rate among the ten largest American cities over the past twenty-five years — approximately 80 percent of nearly 9,500 homicide victims since 1988 have been African American and a majority (52 percent) have been African American males between the ages of 18 and 40. Murder is gendered, spatialized and racialized and perpetrators and victims have the same profile: they are mostly young, black, low-income men who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

The observation of this pattern might lead some to conclude that young black men are inherently violent and reinforce stereotypes too often seen on the evening news. But this would be a mistake of aggregation, of simply adding up the bodies and seeing the total as the sum of its individual parts. This perspective, like that of the criminal justice system, misses the social patterning of homicide.

The murders of young men, apparently because of street-corner “beefs” or long-standing rivalries, are best explained not as individual events but as stemming from neighborhood social ecologies. Violence is predictable where job opportunities lag, where street corners are drug-selling locales, where economic livelihood depends on controlling that marketplace, and where there is no appeals court to which an aggrieved party in a dispute can turn. Police are at best irrelevant and at worst act like an occupying army, stopping, questioning and frisking young black men whether they are players in the underground economy or simply on their way to the corner store. The ethos of “no snitching” reflects widespread mistrust of public authorities while it simultaneously demands that individuals rely on themselves and their friends and family for protection. Might makes right and a reputation for violence is a valuable asset, one that can fend off challenges if others know that challenges will be met.

In this social ecology, young men quickly learn to emulate the street elite. Money, cars, gold and the attention of young women are the tangible rewards for being in “the game.” Boys are lured from school, asked when they are going to start “working,” to join friends, brothers and neighbors making money on the corner. Here is the origin of a new generation of players, getting ready to pick up where an older one left off, to continue their grudges and to generate new ones as they try to earn reputations.

Other kinds of violence, such as the murder of domestic partners or of friends after a dispute, seem at first to be more individual than the instrumental violence of drug dealers and hustlers. But these murders cluster too, in the same neighborhoods and among the same groups as street-corner or economically motivated murders, indicating a shared social causation and a violence deeply embedded in patterns of everyday life and experience.

These patterns of violence and the concentration of homicide among African Americans stretches back at least seventy-five years. In 1950, African Americans had a homicide rate of 22.5 per 100,000 people, or about eleven times the white rate. African Americans of the second great migration — from the 1940s to the 1970s — poured into a city still highly segregated by race and class, where their movement into neighborhoods and into the workforce ran into a stubbornly maintained color line. Moreover, southern migrants brought with them a well-founded mistrust of criminal justice institutions based on encounters with hostile sheriffs and lynch-mob violence. They knew of young men sentenced for minor offences to the chain gangs that maintained the roads under the eye of shotgun-totting guards.

Were Philadelphia police different? In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. City police may not have exchanged their badges for the white hoods of vigilante groups, but a nearly completely white police force held the same racial prejudices of the Philadelphia neighborhoods from which they were recruited. Police enforced urban apartheid, stopping African Americans who transgressed the boundaries of white communities, while largely ignoring black-on-black crime and tolerating the vice trade in the black community. They interrogated suspects aggressively — moving them from precinct to precinct to keep them from friends and family, beating suspects, and depriving them of food and water until they confessed to the charges against them. Before the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda decision (1966) requiring warnings about self-incrimination and establishing an affirmative right to an attorney, abusive police practices abounded, reaffirming urban migrants’ mistrust of criminal justice institutions.

In this social context, African Americans going into public spaces — night clubs, dance halls, local bars and taverns — knew that calling on police to intervene in a dispute might only invite arrest and abuse. In response they responded in a way that was individually rational, but collectively disastrous: they carried the means of self-defense. Until the 1960s this usually meant knives rather than guns (only about 30 percent of Philadelphia homicides during the 1940s and 1950s involved the use of a firearm), but of course the availability of any sort of weapon increased the possibility that a chance encounter could become deadly. Alcohol-fueled disputes between young men, sometimes over trivial matters, were the most common type of murder. And black Philadelphians did not disarm when they arrived home. About one-third of murders involved a domestic partner, a former lover, or a relative, and in drunken disputes, men and women grappled over a knife or an icepick that wound up slashing an artery or being buried in a vital organ, resulting in death.

Southern African Americans, whatever their hopes for a better future, moved into a city in a state of slow but steady decline. Factories recruited locally and through established ethnic networks of current employees, thus leaving the migrants and their children out, except during the labor-starved war years or in the case of strikes. But manufacturing jobs were disappearing anyway (Philadelphia lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1967 and 1977 as industry left in search of more pliable labor, cheaper transportation and newer plants), leaving behind hulking ruins of abandoned buildings that scarred neighborhoods and sucked the value out of nearby row houses. About 60 percent of Philadelphians owned their own homes, which trapped them in place as jobs left. An informal economy ranging from the merely unregulated to the overtly criminal — selling liquor by the glass at the kitchen table on Sundays or after the bars had closed, preparing meals sold to neighbors, hosting games of “Georgia skin,” operating a side-walk car repair, and dealing illegal drugs — emerged to bridge the financial gap left by irregular work. Such illegal entrepreneurs were vulnerable to robbery and the increasing proliferation of guns sent an already high homicide rate soaring.

The two key decades in understanding the climbing rates of homicide were the 1960s and the 1980s. Sales of handguns quadrupled in the United States between 1962 and 1968, no doubt in response to rising rates of violent crime as well as white fears of civil disorder, but then fueling homicide as these guns were used in disputes that once might have been settled less lethally. An enormous wave of heroin use during the decade underlay a rise in larceny, burglary and robbery, with robbers encountering a victim, and as robberies went awry, leaving either perpetrators or, more likely, victims, sprawled in their wake. Homicide in Philadelphia among both blacks and whites increased by about 300 percent in the decade after 1965 with handguns implicated in an ever larger proportion.

Then in the 1980s, innovation in the drug market met innovation in gun manufacturing. Illegal entrepreneurs responded to a glut of powder cocaine by developing crack, a more highly addictive, smokable substance sold cheaply in small units. Cocaine, which had once been a rich person’s drug, now became even more affordable, and dealers made up in sales volume what they lost in price per unit. They also recruited an adolescent work force: youths were sent to juvenile court if arrested and thus avoided the increasingly severe penalties that faced adults caught selling drugs. As these youths competed for the control of drug selling corners, they demanded better arms. American gun manufacturers responded to the demands of an out-of-control drug market by selling inexpensive semi-automatic pistols to replace old fashioned revolvers. Sales of pistols surpassed those of revolvers in 1981, a change that can be read in the increasing rate of homicide. Since 1988, 85 percent of homicides in Philadelphia have been committed with firearms.

Over the past fifty years homicide rates always declined from their peaks, albeit only to somewhat lower plateaus, before spiking again. Drug epidemics subside and illegal markets move from competition to stability, but the underlying social ecology that produces homicide remains. Recently, during the 1990s, homicide declined nationally, but very unevenly. New York City, which now has a homicide rate lower than in the 1960s before the great crime rise, had the most dramatic decline, but other cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore witnessed only modest decreases in the murder rate. Chicago, where homicides declined more significantly in the 1990s, now threatens to surpass Philadelphia.

So this leaves the question of what can be done. With a problem of such magnitude, with deep and tangled roots, there is no simple answer to the question. The most common proposals for more policing, background checks for gun sales, and limitations on the sale of assault rifles offer at best temporary or partial solutions.

Policing can make an immediate difference. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg claims his policing policies are responsible for saving the lives of several thousand young men. Beginning in the 1990s, New York police used geocoded crime data, a technique now used by every major police department, to focus resources on the precincts with the highest rates of violent crime. There police engaged in active anti-gun policing, by stopping young men who looked suspicious, and questioning and frisking them. New York City has the toughest gun control law in the nation (dating from 1911 so clearly not sufficient by itself to deter gun homicides), and virtually any gun carried by a civilian was unlicensed and subjected the carrier to a felony charge. Young men learned not to carry weapons and many of the more impulsive homicides were deflected — permanently. It is rare to find a single policy initiative with such a profound effect.

But this achievement came at a high cost. The courts have found that “stop and frisk” policies rely on racial profiling rather than a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and have forced police departments to rescind (Philadelphia) or severely curtail (New York City) them. Stop and frisk perpetuates the history of over-policing minority communities and profoundly alienates the people it is supposed to protect. Although it shows that if one establishes a near permanent state of siege, it is possible to control public space and depress violence, this is not compatible with maintaining a democratic society.

Community policing, now being implemented by the Philadelphia police department, also aims at blanketing an area with police, but involves a softer approach to the residents. Foot patrols are encouraged to interact with residents, to develop relationships and contacts, and to work with community organizations aiming to intervene in conflicts and mediate disputes. In 2013, homicides in Philadelphia have declined by over a third from last year, indicating the effectiveness of the approach. But saturation policing is expensive, and it is unlikely that the city can maintain it indefinitely. And although community policing aims to restore police-community relations, the current distrust of police was decades in the making and it is unlikely to be unmade in a short period of time.

The current debate over gun control is irrelevant to the problem of urban homicide, which is not committed with high capacity weapons or guns purchased in the legal market. There is no reasonable excuse for allowing civilians to possess military grade weapons, and background checks for all purchases, including private sales, would help keep weapons away from persons with criminal records, those with restraining orders against them, and the violent mentally ill — if they sought to purchase them in the legal marketplace. Stricter gun laws might over time raise the cost of illegal weapons and thus put them beyond the range of some criminals, but so many weapons are in circulation and so few become obsolete that this prospect is dim at best.

More importantly, changing policing patterns and controlling guns leave untouched the problems of concentrated poverty, growing inequality, and the pervasive underground economy. In a world where education is the key to employment, Philadelphia is closing schools, increasing class sizes, and laying off teachers and guidance counselors while (frequently for-profit) charter schools gut the carcass of public education. Nationally, the remnants of public social services are being slashed as federal and state budgets are balanced on the backs of the poor. An outrageously expensive carceral system (the United States now incarcerates a larger percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world) appears to be the only answer to urban crisis that conservatives are willing to fund.

If we cannot change the social ecology that has historically supported homicide, then body counts will continue to mount, and Philadelphia will continue to earn its unfortunate nickname.

Cover photograph by David King

About the Author:

Eric Schneider is an historian at the University of Pennsylvania; he is writing a book about murder and the modern city.