By Ruth E. Hernandez Beltran
New York, Jul 14 (EFE).- A group of Latinos and African-Americans in Philadelphia are looking to combat a rise in gun violence and homicides in their communities and see sports as their most potent tool in that struggle.
“Miles Up! Guns Down!” the anti-gun activists shout repeatedly while jogging through low-income north- and south-side neighborhoods where they were raised and in some cases still live.
It’s a message they will continue to spread throughout the summer months, said Ron Pichardo, co-founder of the Swagga House Run Club, which organizes those events along with Black Men Run Philly.
According to the Hispanic business owner, the main goal is to make children aware that they have other options and can avoid falling into the trap of violent crime.
Pichardo, who is of Dominican descent and lived in Puerto Rico until he and his family moved when he was 12 to a north Philly neighborhood plagued by numerous social ills, said his efforts have not been in vain and that many people are listening to his message.
During their runs, the group’s members stop to talk and play ball sports with children but also to speak with business owners about the violence that has claimed the lives of their friends, family and neighbors.
The idea is to communicate and connect with people, said Pichardo, who runs a tattoo studio and also designs apparel that he sells at his establishment and on his website.
While they jog along the streets, they also hand out Pichardo-brand T-shirts, masks and stickers featuring the “Miles Up! Guns Down!” slogan.
Official figures indicate 255 people were killed by firearms between Jan. 1 and July 12 in Philadelphia and that there have been a total of 295 homicides there during that span, an increase of 35 percent over last year.
And the violence appears to be worsening, with reports of 77 gun-violence victims in the first eight days of July.
Even so, delivering a message of non-violence was not easy at first.
Initially, local residents of these high-crime areas wore harsh looks on their unsmiling faces, Pichardo said. But in talking to the activists, they gradually realized the importance of the group’s message and the need to work together as a community.
He said he and the other group members carry the Puerto Rican and Dominican flags on their runs so people know they are Latinos who are from the area and trying to do something positive.
Young people and adults, some of whom have lost loved ones to gun violence, have gradually joined the runs, according to Pichardo, who said everyone is welcome.
Besides jogging through poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, the Swagga House Run Club also has founded a youth basketball team to keep children and teenagers as far away from street violence as possible.
Despite the uptick in violent crime, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says his administration is not yet ready to follow New York state’s lead and declare a disaster emergency over rising gun violence, even though Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution last year calling on him to do so.
Kenney said last week that “a whole range of legal questions and practical questions … need to be answered,” noting that such a move could violate civil liberties.
The city’s new budget, however, does include $155.7 million in spending to reduce and prevent violence, including community empowerment, employment and careers, healing, prevention and safe havens for children and youth.
A total of $20 million will be allocated to community organizations carrying out a range of initiatives to combat violence, according to local media, which cited the mayor and different experts as saying that increased poverty and unemployment brought about by the pandemic-triggered lockdowns have exacerbated the city’s violent crime woes. EFE