PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Sen. Hillary Clinton’s new proposals on crime have put the issue on the agenda in next week’s primary in Pennsylvania. But for families devastated by violence, the issue reaches well beyond politics.
Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, is one of America’s most violent, with 391 murders in 2007. Particularly troubling to people who live here is that black murder victims outnumbered whites by more than four to one, and there were five times as many murders committed by blacks as whites.
Donna Giddings knows the pain behind the police statistics. Three years after her mother and son were murdered by the same man, she struggles to deal with the aftermath of the crime.
Richard Singletary, 18, shot Andre Giddings, 20, once in the back of the head with an illegal semi-automatic pistol on February 18, 2005, after they argued over a $1,000 debt Singletary owed Andre but which his mother says Andre had forgiven.
In an attempt to leave no witnesses, Singletary then fatally shot Andre’s friend Kenneth Best, 17, and then turned his gun on Andre’s 67-year-old grandmother, Willie Mae Alston, with whom Andre was living at the time.
It’s when Giddings recounts how her mother was hiding in a closet in her home in north Philadelphia to evade Singletary’s gun that tears roll down her cheeks. He killed her with two shots to the chest, she said.
“This kid was diabolical. He just wanted to kill somebody,” said Giddings, 45, a single parent with a 15-year-old daughter at home. “He wasn’t sorry for killing Andre.”
Singletary was arrested four days later and is serving three consecutive life sentences. The murders shared common features with others that help give the United States one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world.
They took place in an impoverished inner-city where drugs and illegal weapons are easily obtained, where codes of street machismo often override civil law and where both the victims and the perpetrator were black.
CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
Andre Giddings didn’t have a gun but sold cocaine and marijuana and was in and out of juvenile detention because of truancy and drug dealing.
Like 42 percent of Philadelphia’s public school students, he did not finish high school. He was unemployed when he died.
With a job, he might have survived because it would have given him an income outside the drug trade and sense of direction, said Giddings, a medical technician who said she always had enough money to give her son what he needed.
“If these young men had good-paying jobs, it would make a significant difference,” she said. “Most of these young boys just want to be part of something. They just want to belong.”
She also blames lax gun laws in a state where lawmakers have repeatedly rejected modest gun-control initiatives such as limiting handgun purchases to one a month per person, and, most recently, requiring owners to report lost or stolen weapons.
Giddings declined to say who she planned to vote for but called Clinton’s crime-fighting plan “impressive” and said it could have saved her son’s life had it been implemented. Now she wants to hear more about the crime policies of her rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
The centerpiece of Clinton’s $4 billion plan is a goal of halving homicide rates in cities by adding 100,000 new police recruits nationwide, targeting gang violence, disrupting drug markets and measures to curb gun trafficking.
Obama has spoken against violent crime but he has also said sentences for some non-violent drug offenses were out of balance. In a speech on race in March, he spoke of “a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.”
According to polls, Clinton is ahead of Obama in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 22, but she trails him in the national race to become the Democratac Party’s nominee in the presidential election in November.
“Hillary came here and talked to blue-collar people who have been touched by the violence,” Giddings said.
“KNEE-DEEP IN TEARS”
Another life marred by violence is that of Darlene Yancey, who lost her brother Richard in March 2006 when two black boys attacked him on his way to work in North Philadelphia early one morning.
They tried to rob him, ended up taking nothing and in the process “emptied their gun into him,” Yancey said.
No witnesses came forward and police said there wasn’t enough evidence for an arrest, even though many in the neighborhood knew who killed her brother, Yancey said.
Yancey, 51, who was wearing a Barack Obama button on her sweater, said the killers were suffering from a lack of respect for themselves and others, which she said can be traced back to slavery.
“A lot of our people are still passive and submissive,” she said. “They didn’t teach themselves that they are worth more.”
Both Giddings and Yancey belong to Mothers in Charge, a group based North Philadelphia and dedicated to educating young people in nonviolent conflict resolution.
Their work and that of other community organizations formed in response to Philadelphia’s epidemic of violence may have contributed to a decline of about 30 percent in the number of killings so far this year.
But it’s too late for Donna Giddings, who says she leans heavily on the other women at Mothers in Charge who have also lost loved ones to the violence.
“We talk, we hang out, we cry,” she says. “This place ought to be knee-deep in tears.”
(Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Matthew Bigg and Eddie Evans)