A day after a shooting killed a 14-year-old boy and wounded four other children following a football scrimmage at Philadelphia’s Roxborough high school, Malcolm Kenyatta visited his alma mater to talk to students and staffers for the first time in more than a year.
It had been well over a decade since Kenyatta, a 32-year-old Black state legislator in Pennsylvania representing north Philadelphia, roamed those same halls as an ambitious student-body president. One of Pennsylvania’s youngest legislators and its first openly gay lawmaker of color, since he was elected in 2018, Kenyatta has advocated for reducing gun violence in a state where Republicans have long dominated the legislature despite having a Democratic governor.
Earlier this year, Kenyatta, described as a rising star among Democrats, unsuccessfully ran for the party’s nomination for a US Senate seat, losing out to lieutenant governor John Fetterman in a closely watched race.
At Roxborough on Wednesday, Kenyatta spotted a Dream Wall. One of the students’ aspirational notes on it especially stuck with him.
The student hoped to live past the age of 30.
“It was something about the simplicity of the note – the staggering seriousness of it,” Kenyatta said. “The reality of whoever wrote it is we can’t tell them they’re wrong.”
In his eyes, the mass shooting at Roxborough failed to capture the national zeitgeist despite the fact that gun violence had cut short yet another child’s life. The lives of the child’s peers and their families were forever changed after a group of shooters unleashed a barrage of over 60 bullets on a school campus.
Federal data shows that school shootings soared to their highest level in two decades in the 2020-2021 school year. And as gun violence emerges as the leading cause of death among US youth, Black, Latino, and Indigenous children are the ones disproportionately dying. In Philadelphia alone, of the thousands of people shot near the city’s schools in recent years, 370 were children, and 36 of them have died.
Meredith Elizalde – whose son Nicolas, a Mexican and Muslim American who marched against gun violence, was killed in Tuesday’s shooting – joined an extensive list of mothers who lost dozens of children to gun violence this year alone.
“God took him to protect him from what this world was going to do to him,” Elizalde told the Inquirer. “I will work the rest of my life so that he isn’t forgotten.”
Kenyatta told the Guardian that news of the shooting “crushed” him. In an interview, which has been condensed for clarity, Kenyatta discussed the causes and potential solutions to the violence US schools, particularly kids of color, keep experiencing.
You described the note you found at Roxborough high School as a “gut punch.” Why?
The lives of Black and brown kids get used as cannon fodder for folks to attack cities in ways that are overtly and sometimes covertly racist, to suggest people who are from poor and urban communities are inherently less safe, which is certainly not the case for all communities.
The reality is people are inherently more desperate. People are more likely to be exposed to situations like this which, for these students, is more and more commonplace. To be in a position of authority but to not be able to fix this by implementing the policy interventions that I’ve championed, it’s really frustrating. I would love if we could all just fix it! I’m one person in a structure unwilling or at least immobile in being able to respond as quickly as this moment demands.
Has this happened before around Roxborough? What, if any, parallels do you see from you were growing up?
No. There were fights, and we certainly had shootings, don’t get me wrong – not at Roxborough, but in my neighborhood in north Philly. We’ve seen this in other mass shootings, depending on how you define it. This is a mass shooting, and it’s going to have a massive impact on people at a place that all of us hope to see as sacred …
I can’t become resigned to it. I ran for office in part because I often say that poverty is the moral economic issue of our time. It’s hard to decouple the statistics around poverty and violent crime. The overlap is too persistent and jarring that in areas where in areas there is lack of economic opportunity, you see higher rates of violence.
The term “economic anxiety” was used ad nauseam to define and excuse people’s racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. That economic anxiety is real for a lot of people of color, too, and it’s leading people into making dangerous, bad, and desperate decisions. And the proliferation of guns has made it so that the amount of damage is so much more widespread.
We’ve seen the nation’s attention captured in mass shootings like in Uvalde or Parkland. But kids in communities of color disproportionately bear the daily brunt of gun violence. We often don’t see the same coverage. Why? Do you think school shootings are treated unequally?
I would have hoped that one of the previous tragedies at a school would’ve been enough to shock and rally the political structure to make this type of wholesale change that we’re in so desperately in need of. But it seems that these shootings aren’t reaching, aren’t moving the intransigent majority in the Pennsylvania legislature.
There’s an undertone of Philadelphia being on its own but it goes beyond Philadelphia. We see this violence in other cities. Why didn’t this shooting garner as much attention?
There’s a bias in terms of how Philly is covered nationally. Well, of course something bad happened in Philly – I’m paraphrasing the thinking of folks who ultimately make those decisions.
A lot of times, as painful as they are, people don’t treat them with the same resonance. But for that family, it will be a huge fucking story. And it will be for decades and beyond. Stories about young black men primarily who were murdered don’t get held up with the same regularity or treated as the tragedy that it is. Every single one of these shootings is a tragedy.
What do you hope comes from the Roxborough shooting?
I hope that we make that student’s dream real – that whoever wrote that post that they and their classmates and the next generation of students who come in will be able to live past 30 and will be able to thrive.