'Rest in peace': Capturing the aftermath of gun violence in Philadelphia
January 29, 2013By Peter Tobia
While on assignment at Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School last year, I learned about a landmark that speaks volumes about that Tioga/Nicetown neighborhood.
As I exited the building, a school employee asked me if I had seen "the mural." I hadn't.
She pointed towards 19th Street. "It's that way. On the left."
She wished me a good day and closed the door behind her. And in about 15 minutes I found myself standing in the middle of a parking lot staring at the words "Rest In Peace."
Under those words were 406 names dedicated to family and friends of the victims of violence in Philadelphia in 2006. Guns were used in 317 of the homicides that year. The ages of the victims appeared next to each name — many of them indicating late teens, 20s and early 30s. Some names were printed vertically to fit on the wall.
The visual impact of the scene left me saddened and shaking my head as I noticed the building next to the mural: Khadijah Alderman Funeral Services.
My brief moment of reflection was broken when I saw a woman in a blue hijab walking toward me. She was friendly and in her late 50s, and she introduced herself as Khadijah Alderman, owner of the funeral home.
Alderman said she arranges four to five funerals each month connected with violence. As we stood talking, a white SUV pulled into the parking lot and backed up near the entrance of the funeral home. Two men got out, opened the back of the truck and began unloading pine boxes.
Two months later on Wednesday, Dec. 5, I found myself back at the funeral home respectfully requesting to photograph the funeral of Najji Abdul-Rahim.
Abdul-Rahim, a 19-year-old teen, was shot and killed in West Philadelphia's Carroll Park section on a Tuesday night.
Police reported Abdul-Rahim was shot six times at 58th and Master streets shortly after 7 p.m. and died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania less than two hours later.
Abdul-Rahim was the city's 310th homicide victim of 2012.
There were 331 homicides in Philadelphia last year. Nearly 75 percent of those killed were black men. Around 80 percent of those doing the killing are black men.
Also at the funeral home that day were Najji's mother, Leslie Glenn, and his fiancée, Lashawn Brown, who was six months pregnant with Najji's child.
A mother grieving
At the beginning of the New Year, I contacted Glenn by email asking if she would like pictures of her son's service.
As I walked through the front door of her West Philadelphia home, we hugged.
She talked about her son and how he enjoyed life tremendously and was respectful and humble. He had just been hired at Sears in the store's electronics department.
He had bought a good camera and enjoyed taking pictures and making videos for friends and looked forward to attending film school. Glenn said she encouraged her son, but it seemed hard for him to break from his friends and leave them behind.
She said that a confrontation had broken out between two groups on the night her son was shot. The situation escalated. She told me the police arrested the shooter.
On Jan. 4, they tracked down Brandon Roberts, 20, at a friend's apartment at 63rd and Jefferson streets and charged him with murder and firearms offenses.
Before leaving I mentioned the mural on West Hunting Park Avenue. She knew exactly what I was talking about. She said her son had been working on a video with a friend and included the mural in some of his footage.
So far this year, 17 homicides have been recorded in Philadelphia.