The Killing of Kensington: Life and Death in America's Opioid Capital
There’s “No Price to Pay” for Crime in Philadelphia, Says Mayor and Victim’s Families
Another week in Philadelphia and another major real estate deal—with developers announcing yesterday a $22 million sale for business space and 73 residential units in the Spring Garden neighborhood. Recently redone with the kind of luxury finishes that have become standard on new development projects, the building offers high-end accommodations and nearby amenities like newly opened microbreweries and the city’s peaceful elevated rail park.
Days earlier, eight stops north of Spring Garden on the Broad Street subway line, a young woman named Alyssa Morales was attacked by a group of men in Hunting Park. Beaten and set on fire, she was discovered by others who came to the park assuming there was a trash fire. Because Morales was unable to speak her name at the ICU, it took two days before the staff learned who she was while they attended to the second- and third-degree burns that cover more than half her body.
Before and since the attack on Morales, a cruel, menacing wave of violence has washed over Philadelphia. Blocks from that same park, Loi Nguyen was out on his Monday morning walk, as had been the 76-year-old’s routine for years, when a man shot him dead with a bullet to the skull and ran off, leaving Nguyen’s family bereft and mystified about the cause of the violence. Days before, a man named Malcom White was arrested on charges of one rape and three separate assaults against women, including two attacks in the city’s bustling South Passyunk neighborhood. White had brutally beaten three women walking together, leaving one with a bloody nose, before coming upon another woman, Noelle Liquori, who was waiting on the sidewalk as her boyfriend finished his afternoon shift at work nearby. “The first hit came from behind. He hit me in the ear, put me down, and punched me in the face a couple of times,” Liquori said. “The last thing I remember, I was being dragged on my back. He had my feet, dragging me down the pavement. I kept kicking him and screaming to get someone’s attention.”
Two dozen people traveled to the capital city of Harrisburg on Monday because they, too, are asking for someone to help them. They were at the capitol building to bring attention to an effort to impeach Larry Krasner, the district attorney in Philadelphia serving his second term. Taking turns at the podium in the rotunda, family members of those who’ve been killed in the city described feeling that the crime in Philadelphia is ceaseless, with no one able to stop it. Since the start of this year, 830 people have been injured in shootings in Philadelphia, with another 200 killed in gun homicides.
“At what point do we hold those responsible to accountability? How many sons and daughters do we have to lose?” said Nakisha Billa, who’s son was murdered last spring while buying clothes for an upcoming job interview. Billa stood beside other parents who held up photos of their children, portraits from graduation days and school sports. The men who killed her son had several previous convictions between them. “The lawlessness that is going on in Philadelphia is beyond control.”
The attempt to impeach Krasner was initiated this week by three Republican members of the Pennsylvania House. Citing the state’s constitutional provision that allows lawmakers to impeach a public official if that person has committed a serious crime or a “misbehavior,” the lawmakers argue that Krasner falls afoul of the latter clause, in breach of his prosecutorial oath and derelict in his duties to protect the residents of the city. It’s unlikely the impeachment will garner the two-thirds majority support it would need in the state’s upper chamber, where at least five Democrats would have to join the Republican-led campaign.
It’s uncertain whether impeaching Krasner would make an immediate or significant dent in what’s happening in Philadelphia. The DA is not wrong when he speaks of systemic, institutional failures that have plagued the city for decades, as developers and city council members have poured money into some neighborhoods while the schools, community programs, and public parks in the less desirable zip codes were left to rot. It’s what has allowed Kensington, the nation’s largest open-air drug market, to flourish into a massive bazaar where the guns trade just as freely as the fentanyl kills scores of people in Philadelphia. On the other hand, the DA’s job is not to cure the root causes of every social ill but to uphold the law and help maintain public order, and while Philadelphia’s problems may not all be of Krasner’s making, the district attorney hasn’t exactly made much of an effort to combat them.
Facing criticism in January for the record number of homicides in Philadelphia in 2021, Krasner brushed off the complaints that there was a problem. “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence,” he said. Since he was elected in 2018, Krasner, following the same agenda as other prominent progressive DAs, has pushed for shorter sentences and for forgoing charges against defendants arrested by police for illegal firearms. “We do not believe that arresting people and convicting them for illegal gun possession is a viable strategy to reduce shootings,” a representative from Krasner’s office said in January, which, when you think about it for a moment, is absolutely fucking insane for the prosecutor’s office to believe, let alone to say out loud. On the district attorney’s website, Krasner keeps a running tally of how many fewer years served convicts have received since he began his tenure: 28,100 years in total.
Krasner’s approach has also led to a startling exodus of prosecutors from his office—including those he’s hired himself. After Krasner took over the office in 2018, at least 70 of the prosecutors Krasner recruited to join the office have since left, adding to the total of some 261 attorneys who’ve departed the office under Krasner’s leadership. “I joined this office for a reason. I came to Philly to work for Krasner because I believed in what he was trying to do,” one member of his staff told a reporter. “I feel betrayed a lot by this office and the promises of what I thought this job was going to be.” The high turnover rate has burdened those who stay with unsustainable caseloads and forced Krasner last month to seek more money from the city so he could entice new hires with higher salaries. One council member said they were reluctant to give more money to the office because of how many complaints they receive from residents who feel they suffer from the “revolving door” of crime committed by the same offenders in their neighborhood.
Following the mass shooting on Philadelphia’s South Street that left three dead and 11 wounded earlier this month, Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, expressed dismay at the city’s atmosphere of lawlessness. “It’s gotten to the point where there’s no price to pay for carrying illegal guns, so people carry them because they don’t think anything is going to happen,” said Kenney. Of 303 arrested in 2019 and 2020 for illegal firearms in the city’s 18th police district, two went to prison.
The feeling of being unprotected in Philadelphia has swiftly driven up firearm purchases, with almost 50,000 guns bought in the city across 2020 and 2021, more than doubling the 22,000 guns that had been bought during the two-year period prior. The uptick in people arming themselves for protection has also led to an escalation of justified homicides, aka people using guns to kill people attacking them. In 2018, just six people had been found to be justified in killing someone with a gun in self-defense. Last year, the city’s police department saw justified homicides rise 67% to 20 killings, with six more awaiting approval by the district attorney’s office.
In March, Junwan Perkins-Owens, a 22-year-old assistant manager of a Philadelphia Dollar General, shot and killed a gunman wearing a ski mask and threatening to shoot his cashier as he demanded the money from the store’s register. Perkins-Owens’ store had recently been robbed by a man who held off employees by threatening to stick them with a hypodermic needle. But that wasn’t why Perkins-Owens bought the gun he later used in self-defense. He bought the gun when he suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in a separate incident.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but victims are tired of being victims,” said Perkins-Owens. “People are actually standing up for themselves.”