Off the Cuff: February 2007

Philadelphia is a city with a black mayor, in which young black men are being murdered at an unconscionable rate. Apparently, John Street is incapable of dealing with the problem. But the truth is, even if he were proactive, even if he were pulling out all the stops with policing and confiscating guns and so forth, he would also have to confront the underlying problems that make violence in Philadelphia impossible to stop. Unfortunately, however, we’re not even permitted to discuss the root causes of the murders.

That’s why it’s refreshing — or, more accurately, shocking — when a high-ranking city official actually speaks her mind, and says what she thinks is really at the bottom of this city’s troubles. I’ve known Lynne Abraham a long time, and we’ve had our differences over the years. But the District Attorney has always been open and forthright. Recently she’s been fighting in the media with Mayor Street over how little he’s doing to stem the violence; he responded, naturally, by accusing her of having a temper tantrum over budget cuts that could mean her office will lose a dozen prosecutors.

The Mayor is wrong, of course. Our District Attorney is sick and tired of the violence and the murders, and wasn’t afraid, during a recent conversation we had with her, to say what she feels are the underlying problems.

Lynne Abraham thinks, for example, that too many young people in Philadelphia are having children without getting married, and that too many girls have several children while they’re still teenagers. Of course, by the time these kids hit the criminal justice system — and so many of them will — it’s too late.

“What do you want us to do about your kid that you conceived when you were drunk or high,” Abraham asks rhetorically, “and you don’t care about your kid, don’t even know who the partner was, and never go to a doctor? You drink, you abuse yourself, you bring this kid into this world, and he’s just a little thing to play with for a couple days, and then you lose interest. You give him to your best friend or oldest kid to take care of. What do you want us to do about that?” We all have a responsibility, Lynne Abraham is saying, to raise our children well.

However, we have already reached a dangerous point, because her message — as direct and poignant as it is — will be misunderstood. It will be read as being not about responsibility, but about race. Abraham says these problems have nothing to do with race, and to bolster her point, she cites an example of irresponsible behavior she recently witnessed.

The D.A. went into a CVS at 11th and Market. A mother was screaming at her two small children because they were touching toys — screaming at them to stop. This mother was beside herself with rage. It was sad; Abraham looked at those children, and she could guess what their home life was like, and where those children were eventually headed.

The problem is, we’re afraid to intervene, to demand more responsible behavior of every parent, because when we do, race becomes the sole issue.

“But when we get caught up in this meaningless bullshit,” Abraham says — she means how our obsession with and fear of racism corrupt every discussion — “we can’t ever reach the problems, because right away we’re shut down. I didn’t say whether the woman in CVS was white or black or Asian. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s the impact of the emotional and psychic abuse of those kids. Which isn’t just demonstrated that one time — I’ll bet it happens every day in their lives, that they’re abused. And they are going to express that in some unacceptable way.”

Lynne Abraham has the guts to tell the truth about what disturbs her. Why is it that there are so few people in this city like her? After all, to solve any problem, we must confront it head-on. I apologize if that is patently obvious. In Philadelphia, it doesn’t seem to be.