On an ice cold Saturday morning in West Philadelphia, a large crowd gathered in protest of the rash of handbag robberies-turned-murders that has left the city’s women afraid to step out with purses in hand.
A few members of the crowd interject, shouting out “No one!” in response to the organizers’ chant. Four women — and one man who ran after his girlfriend’s assailant — have been shot in the last two months by robbers who attempted to steal purses. Two of the women died, including Melissa Thomas, 29, who was gunned down a week ago as she and another woman left a club after a night of karaoke.
Eight years ago, I moved here from Chicago and adopted Philadelphia as my home — I love this city, flaws and all. But these recent incidents aren’t just your run-of-the-mill, grab-and-go purse snatchings — they are irrational and cold-blooded murders.
“The bottom line is it was not about the purse,” said Stephanie Long, who saw her 26-year-old daughter Amber shot down in front of her two weeks ago. Her voice trembled as she spoke to the crowd. “He didn’t even take the purse.”
The two were walking together in Northern Liberties, a trendy hipster neighborhood of Philadelphia, when the robbers ambushed them. One took Stephanie’s purse right off her shoulder, and the other struggled to take Amber’s. She put up a fight, and the robber pulled out a gun and fired at her chest, striking her at point-blank range. The young architect died soon after reaching a local hospital.
“I work at 907 Front Street, and right outside my door, Amber Long was killed,” said Michelle Martin, a Handbags 4 Peace organizer. “Amber Long could have been me, walking out of my office — it could have been any of us.”
Amber’s story deeply resonates with me — I also was the victim of an armed robbery in Philly. And like her, I struggled against my assailant, refusing to simply lie down and give up my bag. But I got to walk away with my life.
I was a newly minted Philadelphian, having arrived only a month earlier from the Chicago suburbs to attend physics graduate school. The University of Pennsylvania campus is notorious for having a high crime rate. My parents, who had helped me move, had seen my new neighborhood and feared for my safety on a daily basis.
One evening after class, I was a block away from my apartment when I noticed a group of kids coming towards me. They blocked my path, and one of them whipped out a gun, pointing it at my face. They demanded my wallet and backpack. As panicked as I was, I still didn’t want to give up my bag and argued with them. There was a struggle as they tried to pull it off my shoulder, and my cell phone and music player fell out . They swiped them off the ground, I started yelling for help, and they ran off.
The more you get to know people in Philly, you begin to realize that almost everyone has a story of robberies, assaults, or break-ins — men included.
The stories from the guys I know are endless: A male friend of mine was randomly jumped by a gang of men in Chinatown for no apparent reason. My cyclist friend got punched by a man in the passenger seat of a car that whizzed past us, simply because we weren’t riding on a street with a bike lane. Yet another was pistol-whipped by two young men while walking to work; after patting him down, they stole his bag, wallet and coat.
It isn’t just women and children that are the victims — it is every individual in this city that lives in fear after crimes like these happen.
Despite the shocking murders of late, the overall number of killings took a large nosedive in 2013 with a total of 246 — the lowest rate in the city’s history since 1967. Murder rates, as well as robberies, have decreased steadily over the last two decades. But so far this year, the number of people murdered — 31 — is already higher than this time last year.
Tamara Mikell, 39, has stopped carrying her purse and told her 23-year-old daughter to do the same. The group of girlfriends she goes out with have turned to each other for support during this scary time.
“When we go out together, we carry something very small, nothing bulky,” she said. “We’ve been trying to be a safety net to each other.”
At the protest, Mikell carries a bright yellow, zebra-striped purse — just the kind of bag that she no longer wears out for fear of being targeted. But she isn’t happy about having to restrain her normally fashionable self-expression: “I don’t feel like I should not carry a bag that I worked hard for.”
Although I still carry my bag, it doesn’t mean I step out of my apartment unafraid — after all, I live in West Philadelphia, the same neighborhood where Melissa Thomas was killed. Having lived in the city for most of my adult life, I am acutely aware of the reality of my surroundings. It angers me that the natural state of being a Philadelphian often includes a slight fear constantly playing in the background of our minds. And even though I walked away from my mugging unhurt, knowing what I know now, would I risk resisting again? No way.
One of the many men at the protest, Shabaka Mnombatha, 57, said he came to let the families of those that have been killed that people in the city still care.
“A lot of people turn their backs on this community,” Mnombatha said, referring to his poverty-stricken neighborhood of West Philadelphia. “We have the largest pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia, but yet we have so many people that are sick.”
The organizers gave the crowd advice on how to stay safe: town and block watches, using the iWatch mobile app to report suspicious activity, and advocating for crime cameras to be installed.
Martin also stressed that women should not walk around at night alone, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we live in utopia. Our city certainly has its fair share of problems, including rampant crime — but, crucially, it also has a fighting spirit.
Meeri Kim is a freelance science journalist based in Philadelphia. She recently received her Ph.D. in physics from University of Pennsylvania, and regularly contributes to the Post’s Health & Science section. Follow her on Twitter @meeri_kim.