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March 14, 2016

Rittenhouse stabbing a symptom of civic numbness toward violence

Flyers/Devils slaying makes for easy headlines, but changing status quo of indifference will take a collective effort

Opinion Crime
Steven simminger Philadelphia Police Department/For PhillyVoice

Steven E. Simminger, 40, of Media, Delaware County, is charged with murder. Police allege he stabbed and killed a 24-year-old Bucks County man walking near Rittenhouse Square early Sunday, March 13, 2016.

Let’s take a break from talking about the violent under- and overtones at Donald Trump rallies for a few moments to talk about bloody tenor a little closer to home, shall we?

Take Sunday morning, when Philadelphia Police Det. Joe Murray tweeted these words out: “Seven non-fatal shooting victims and one murder in west and southwest [Philadelphia] last night.”

That’s both galling and normal in the context of the numbers of gunshot victims whose stories don’t get widely told. Eight shootings in one night: Shocking. Eight shootings in one night: Not shocking enough to send loud cries of despair echoing through sections of the city where eight people don’t get shot in one night.

This city sees so many people getting shot – both fatally and not – that we’re approaching (best case scenario) or blew past (worst-case scenario) the point where stop-the-violence messaging has an impact. Hell, there was a fatal shooting less than a half-mile from where I was hosting Quizzo last Tuesday and it barely registered.

It’s gotten to the point where reversals of mindset feel like impossibilities. The mood is such where “that’s just the way it is” has become the stock response, the easy out. In the media world, frequency of similar incidents often breeds generic “who, what, when, where, why” brief coverage. That’s a sick reality, but a reality all the same.

Even today, the rain-drenched first Monday after at least eight people got rushed to hospitals thanks to bullets, the majority of attention – mine included, embarrassingly enough – gets diverted toward the outlier, the case that registers in the public’s conscience.

Yes, we’ve gotten to the point that so much violence occurs in the course of a week that it requires a concerted effort to keep track.

I’m talking, of course, about an isolated, deadly stabbing that happened during Sunday’s wee hours in a section of town where people don’t often get fatally cut.

Here’s just one headline topping the story to which I refer: “Devils fan reportedly stabs Flyers fan to death in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square.”

This story has everything that pushes news stories into the viral realm.

Unexpected stabbing in a high-end section of town? Check.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a time when the city’s Erin Express gets flowery photo-gallery coverage? Check.

A seemingly random incident precipitated by professional sports rivalries in a city where professional-sports fandom can be found in the citizenry’s DNA? Check.

Initial reports described the since-captured perpetrator as a man wearing a New Jersey Devils cap (the Devils are an NHL rival of the hometown Flyers). The ultimately fatal altercation at 19th and Rittenhouse was sparked by a conversation about that cap in the context of whether the soon-to-be victim – Colin McGovern, 24, in town from Churchville, Bucks County to celebrate the holiday – was a Flyers fan.

Initial reactions veered in two directions: a) Holy smokes, a man was killed for being a Flyers fan in Philly? b) This type of thing doesn’t happen in Rittenhouse Square; it’s so safe here, generally.

On Monday, police announced that 40-year-old Steven E. Simminger of Media, Delaware County had been charged in connection with the murder. A flurry of reports both accurate and inaccurate was addressed with that formal identification, even if we’ll have to await a preliminary hearing to get the formal, in-depth details.

If what I’m hearing from police holds true, though, it was less an incident where the perpetrator sought trouble, but was approached in a fashion that put his hat on trial. In other words, Simminger didn’t ask the victim if he was a Flyers fan, but when that conversation ensued, his reaction bent toward life-ending violence.

It speaks to a person on edge in a nation on edge in a world on edge. It also speaks to a general mood where the descriptor “dangerous” falls short.

More details will be offered at a 1 p.m. press conference at the Roundhouse, so for the purposes of this column, I want to divert attention away from that high-profile case in another direction.

Namely, I called the Philadelphia police press office with a request on Monday morning: Can you share the names of everybody who’s been shot or stabbed in the city since last Monday? The shockingly understandable response: There’s way too much going on for us to get you that today.

Yes, we’ve gotten to the point that so much violence occurs in the course of a week that it requires a concerted effort to keep track.

Luckily, the police sent along narratives of many of the incidents occurring in the past seven days. 

Here’s just a sampling of what’s happened in your city since March 7:

• Quadir Whitney, 21, of the 2100 block of South Alden Street, was fatally shot in the 2100 block of North Van Pelt Street, just before 6:30 p.m. last Tuesday. A 22-year-old man was also shot there that night, but he lived.

• Demetrius Pinckney, 21, of the 1900 block of North 22nd Street, was fatally shot in the 2300 block of Morris Street about an hour-and-a-half later. A 20-year-old man was also shot there that night, but he lived, too.

• Around the same time, Trevor E. Bouknight, 22, of the 5400 block of West Girard Avenue, was fatally shot in the 1400 block of North Vodges Street, and a man was fatally shot in the 3100 block of West Abbotsford Avenue, as was Phillip Miller, 31, of the 2400 block of North Hollywood Street.

• Earlier that afternoon, three people were stabbed – one fatally – at a Cricket Phone store on Baltimore Avenue.

Wait. We’re not done yet.

• Just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, Eric Bright, 27, of the 1200 block of West Oakdale Street was fatally shot in the 2800 block of West Huntingdon Street.

• Just after 8 p.m. Wednesday, an 18-year-old man in a wheelchair was critically injured by gunshots to the face and buttocks. Reads the police summary of that case, “The complainant was paralyzed prior to this incident as a result of a previous shooting on 04/21/13, on the 400 block of E. Washington Lane.”

Then, there was a double stabbing near Broad and Arch streets on Sunday, as well.

This list is not even close to comprehensive. The cases that Murray tweeted about this weekend aren’t included, and neither is the uproar over teenagers brawling near City Hall mid-week. By the time you’ve read this, that list easily could’ve grown in victim-identity length. It's also worth keeping in mind that it isn't even summer yet.

Something needs to change drastically in the collective societal mood. I’m not comfortable with a world where life-ending violence barely registers without a punchy headline that differentiates it from the crime-blotter pack. You shouldn’t be either.

We need to fight against a status-quo numbness that devolves into no-win gun-control debates, and that manifests itself in sucker punches when people disagree politically, tragedies going unnoticed in a city’s rougher neighborhoods or blades thrusting through skin when drunken conversations about sports rivalries unfold in Rittenhouse Square. 

Protests alone cannot do it, if only because protests alone haven't done it. What may be the saddest part of this whole mess is the fact that an answer isn't obvious, for so many varied things lead people toward violence that an all-encompassing solution isn't possible.

I know this much, though: If we just accept the fact that things cannot ever change, and wallow in that defeatist despair, the new normal will consume us all whole, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.