The Importance of Being Specific

In a mayor’s race where gun violence and crime has taken center stage, it’s important to remember how government works…and what happens when you yell “Do Something!” at it.

Photo by Dids

On Tuesday night, I took a few minutes to catch some of the candidates’ forum that the School District of Philadelphia had.

I had been a part of an education forum earlier in the primary cycle, so I wanted to see if the emphasis would remain on education or if it would go where it ultimately goes during these forums.


While the emphasis stayed mostly with education, it did veer into crime, and I get it. It’s hard to learn when you’re concerned about whether you’ll get to and from school safely. As I’m writing this column, I had just finished reading a story about three young people, aged 13 to 16, that were shot in West Philadelphia because a car full of other young people just felt like lighting up the neighborhood with gun fire. In broad daylight.

When people are shooting up city blocks at 4pm in the afternoon, something that I hadn’t seen since the early 1990s, I understand why most of the other candidate forums that I’m getting notifications for center on crime.

But one of the reasons why the most powerful people in City Hall, or any government office for that matter, are the people who have been there for 20 years, or more is because of the institutional knowledge they carry. While I’m not a government employee, I’m a reporter that’s seen this before and can understand the impulse to make a demand of your government to do something.

All I ask, especially since Philadelphia is a mostly Black and Brown city with a high poverty rate, is that voters be really specific in their ask this time around.

The reason I bring this up is because, as I said, I remember what happened the last time we had the level of gun violence we’re seeing in Philadelphia and the government was asked to intervene.

Nationwide, as drug traffickers discovered that crack was a cash cow, the turf wars that come with that led to a lot of gun violence. No one was safe. Kids walking to school. Moms going to the grocery store. No one.

Groups started coming to Congress demanding that the body do something. Leading that charge was the Congressional Black Caucus, which was seeing the death and mayhem in real time through the eyes of their constituents. Because this was during the Clinton administration, and President Bill Clinton kinda owed his election to the CBC, he listened and promised them that if they brought something to his desk to solve the problem, he’d sign it.

Now, if Congress had taken a good, hard look at the neighborhoods most impacted by crack prior to crafting legislation, it could have done some really good things here. It could have put together a package that reinvested in these neighborhoods. It could have added more education funding.

It could have funded more drug rehabilitation spaces to help those trying to kick the only drug I’ve ever seen whose hold on the user is such that someone who almost died from an overdose would make getting more of it the top priority when leaving the hospital.

There’s a lot it could have done to make the conditions in these mostly urban neighborhoods less crack friendly.

But instead, government, well, governmented. What people need to understand about government is that it’s going to follow the path of least resistance unless it’s pushed into doing something different. The path of least resistance when it comes to such things as crime is to build new prisons, make sentences tougher, and penalize to the max.

So, predictably, instead of putting more money into schools, communities and other things that would have made a difference, we got the Federal Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is the government name of the the Crime Bill of 1994. Police got more money, more prisons were built, and a rock of crack could get you the kind of time that would normally go to murderers.

And an entire generation of Black and Brown people from places like Philadelphia can’t get federal financial aid for college because they had a rock of crack the size of a grain of rice in their hand in 1996.

I understand that Philadelphians are tired of having to bury their young. I’m tired of having to write about it, especially since I’ve been writing about it since 1994. Your kids are supposed to outlive you. The fact that there are folks out there changing that reality because of some code of toughness that demands that you have a semi-automatic weapon attached to you in case that person you’ve been beefing with on Twitter is on the street is a problem that needs to be solved.

But we have to remember that solving that problem shouldn’t be done in a way that creates other ones. When you demand of your Mayoral candidates a solution to crime, be SPECIFIC. Really SPECIFIC.

Because by now, we’ve seen what happens when we’re not specific far too often.

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