The exception that publicizes the rule

    Not a dangerous city? Tell it to them¹
    By Annette John-Hall, Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist

    Shauta McDuffie will be sitting in the front row of New Hope Baptist Church today for the funeral for her son, Tykeem Law.

    You would think your child’s funeral would be the hardest place to go, but for the 31-year-old mother, going home is harder.

    She still hasn’t had the strength to step foot inside her South Philadelphia home since Tykeem was senselessly gunned down July 14. He was doing what kids do on a summer day — whiling away the afternoon riding his bike with a group of friends.

    Moments later, he was dead. He was only 14, a life of promise snuffed out by a ruthless, troubled gunman who aimed and fired because Tykeem didn’t move out of the street fast enough for his car to pass.

    The randomness of Tykeem’s murder is enough to make any parent shudder. Only a half an hour before, his mother had watched her son ride down the street as she left to buy water shoes and swim trunks for her youngest child.

    How can the village raise its children when guns have infested it, infecting the entire village with fear?

    But that’s not what researchers would have us believe. As the city reels from a weekend of fresh bloodshed — seven homicides, which catapulted the murder rate to a staggering 233 (as of yesterday afternoon) — recent reports reassure us that there is little to fear.

    According to a study released last week by Philadelphia criminologists, gun violence quite often befalls people with criminal records.

    Oh, and it mostly occurs in “impoverished” neighborhoods. So chances are it won’t spill over into a Center City tourist spot near you.

    Dangerous city? A media misnomer, declared Denise Clayton of the city’s Youth Violence Reduction Partnership.

    “It’s a very narrow group of people in this world of violence. If you are not in this world, this is not a dangerous city,” she told The Inquirer last week.

    Well, what a relief. All that violence is killing them, not us. They don’t matter.

I wish I could reproduce the entire column, but that would be a violation of copyright law; I’d suggest following the embedded link to read the whole thing yourself. (Inquirer stories tend to get deleted from their archives after a couple of months.)

Mrs John-Hall tells is about the truly innocent victims of the carnage in the City of Brotherly Love, and there are a lot of them. Today’s Inquirer had a front page story on the funeral of 14-year-old Tykeem Daquan Law.

    Anguished farewell for a boy shot at play²
    ‘Tykeem, I’m going to miss you so much’
    By Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

    Hundreds of family members, friends and acquaintances packed New Hope Temple Baptist Church in South Philadelphia yesterday to say goodbye to 14-year-old Tykeem Daquan Law.

    But the task was too great for many still grappling with the horror of a boy’s being shot to death on a summer afternoon while riding his bike with friends. He didn’t get out of the way fast enough for an angry motorist who, police say, opened fire, tearing a hole in Tykeem’s chest.

    “That’s just a baby!” one mourner cried, collapsing in tears as she passed the casket. “He’s just a baby.”

    Members of the Alcorn School basketball team stood on either side of his casket. One stared straight ahead, his cheeks wet. Another solemnly held Tykeem’s framed No. 11 basketball jersey.

    The school district’s Victoria Yancey, who attends funerals of the city’s schoolchildren, read a resolution honoring Tykeem, and Alcorn principal Pamela D. Young recited Tykeem’s “life story.”

    “Please take comfort in knowing that he was a good citizen of our school,” Young told the gathering. “He had a good name.”

The Inquirer has gone all out on this story, because it’s news: a truly innocent victim, gunned down senselessly, because he was too slow in getting out of the way of a motorist who just didn’t like being slowed down by a kid on a bike. It made the front page, it’s gotten several stories, all because it is news.

What isn’t news, beyond the grim statistics, are the couple of hundred murder victims who really weren’t innocents, the ones who had long rap sheets themselves, the ones who were selling drugs and roaming in gangs. And this is where Mrs John-Hall’s column fails: most of the victims really are the dregs of society, so no one, other than their families, really cares. The story to which Mrs John-Hall referred, Shooting victims often are violators,³ noted that:

    Thirty percent of gun-homicide victims last year had pending criminal cases at the time they were killed, up from 20 percent in 2003. . . .

    Two-thirds of shooting victims last year had police mug shots on file from a previous arrest. . . .

    as many as three-quarters of the murders in Philadelphia may involve convicted or charged offenders who are under the supervision of the probation department or another supervision agency, such as the court’s pretrial division.

    Sherman testified that adult offenders are seven times as likely to commit murder as the average city resident, and four times as likely to get murdered.

Mrs John-Hall was perhaps offended by the conclusions of the study, Weapons Related Injury Surveillance System Report, done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerry Lee Center of Criminology. The conclusions are stark, in that they tell us that most of the victims were not exactly good people — and that lends some official credence to the general perception that it was just plain good riddance for some of these guys.

Tykeem Law was an exception, a kid who had never been in trouble, but it is the exceptions which publicize the rules. It is Mrs John-Hall’s own newspaper which tells us the rule: by their heavy coverage, complete with photographs, of the exceptional victim, the very absense of coverage for most of the victims stands out, at least for those who bother to think about it. Most of the victims receive little mention — and the amount of coverage in the Inquirer is determined by the editors of the Inquirer, and not by anybody else.

This is hardly the first time that the Inquirer has gone all out on a story about a truly innocent victim. They covered Kevin Johnson, who was left a quadriplegic after being shot because he wouldn’t give his Allen Iverson jersey to a group of thugs; Mr Johnson died last January, from complications due to his injuries. They covered Casha’e Rivers, the five-year-old who was killed because she was unfortunate enough to reside among drug dealers and their girlfriends. They covered Faheem Thomas-Childs, the elementary school student who was caught in a hail of bullets when one drug gang tried to ambush another, as a couple of members of the second gang were dropping their kids off at school.

But most victims are just statistics: in 2005, 70% of the murder victims in Philadelphia had rap sheets.

Mrs John-Hall is seeing, is perhaps being overwhelmed by, the human side of the story. The relatives of Faheem Thomas-Childs wept after the verdict that sent his killers, Kareem Johnson, 21, and Kennell Spady, 22, to prison for the rest of their miserable lives, but the Inquirer also reported that the relatives of Messrs Johnson and Spady “erupted in sobs” when they were convicted. Somehow, I have less sympathy for Messrs Johnson and Spady than for the ten year old boy they killed.

I’d guess that a whole lot of other people feel about the same.

So, in a year in which Philadelphians are slaughtering each other at a rather substantial rate (about 27.9 per 100,000 population, adjusted by date), it’s actually good news that most of the murders are thug-on-thug. Mrs John-Hall didn’t like the callousness of the report she cited, and I can certainly see her point, but it’s the silver lining on an awfully dark cloud.
¹ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tuesday, July 24, 2007, p. B-1
² – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Wednesday, July 25, 2007, p. A-1
³ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, July 16, 2007, p. A-1


  1. I’m not sure that the killing of Tykeem Law was not at least thug vs. wannabe thug. The “model kid” blocked the car with his bike and walked up to the passenger side of the killer’s car. Why?

    “In the part of town where if you hit a red light you don’t stop ….”

  2. And the Inquirer had another story on one of the actually innocent victims in today’s paper:

    Mourning a ‘bright kid’ cut down by gunfire¹
    His death was overshadowed by a triple slaying, but Tyrone Campbell’s life was remembered fondly.
    By Joseph A. Gambardello, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

    If Philadelphia is to have a future, it will need young men like Tyrone Campbell.
    The problem is that Campbell is no longer here to help out. His life was cut short by a gunman in the predawn darkness in North Philadelphia.

    He was one of seven people killed last weekend in Philadelphia, his case lost in the attention focused on the shooting at Abay’s Wheeler Bar in Southwest Philadelphia that left three men dead and a fourth critically wounded after an argument over a boxing bet.

    Campbell, 20, was on his way to catch the bus to go work on Sunday, just hours after the bar shooting. Detectives aren’t sure why he was killed but think he might have resisted a stickup.

    More at the link.
    ¹ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday, July 26, 2007, p. B-1

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