Overcast skies loomed above the Philadelphia Art Museum on Wednesday, May 29. A crowd holding posters and pictures flooded the museum steps. People hugged and shook hands, cheering as speakers called for an end to gun violence.
For the past four years, Helen Ubinãs has hosted Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence at the museum to draw attention to the city’s gun violence epidemic.
Ubinãs organized the first event in 2016, just a week after the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida. After that shooting, Ubinãs said she first felt outrage, then empowered. She reached out to mothers of murder victims to organize an event on the Art Museum steps, not only to protest but to speak passionately about the dangers of growing gun culture, especially in Philadelphia.
Last year, Philadelphia saw the highest rate of homicides since 2007, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2019 State of the City report. After dropping off in 2013, homicides have been steadily ticking up since 2015.
Ubinãs’ own experiences with gun violence has propelled her advocacy work.
“I grew up in the Bronx,” she said. “A lot of the stuff I covered, I saw.”
Now, Ubinãs, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, takes to the streets to set up pop-up, impromptu newsstands to talk to people on the streets. Gun violence is almost always a topic that surfaces.
“I get a banner from PR [public relations at The Philadelphia Inquirer] and throw it on a table or over a fence in any community,” she said.
One of her biggest pet peeves is large publications not reporting enough on underserved communities.
The annual Fill the Steps rally is the biggest event Ubinãs plans, and it’s growing bigger every year. Even as dark clouds loomed, families and advocates showed up, waved signs, and listened intently to the speakers.
“It’s all about saving lives,” said Wayne Jacobs, an advocate and ex-offender. He said that he was once on the other side of the conversation.
Now he’s reformed and helping to spread awareness as co-founder and executive director for his organization, X-Offenders for Community Empowerment. Its main mission is to stop the illegal transfer of firearms to people unauthorized to have them. In other words, keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Also among the crowd was Shonda McClellan. With the support of family and friends, she sat in the front row with photos and signs of her late daughter, Erica McClellan. McClellan explained that Erica was murdered at the age of 17 on November 12, 2017.
“She’ll never just be a homicide number for that year” McClellan said. “She’s my child and I’m her voice.”
Philadelphia Police have someone in custody, but McClellan feels the justice given is no consolation for the life of her daughter.
“I can’t look at prom pictures … graduation pictures,” she said.
Last year, McClellan accepted Erica’s diploma. Weeks earlier, prom fell on what would have been Erica’s 18th birthday.
“These are our babies,” she said. “These gun laws have to really, really change and these kids are getting younger and younger. We should not be burying our babies.”
Activists like Max Milkman, who works for Cease Fire PA, an organization that advocates for common sense gun laws in Pennsylvania, were in the crowd, too.
“I lost a friend in 2016 to suicide by firearm, and I’ve been fighting for gun violence prevention laws ever since,” Milkman said.
Certain laws and regulations can be passed that would allow the family of a distressed individual to lobby a judge in order to issue a restraining order from firearms to ensure the safety of their family member and others.
Additionally, there are no laws requiring the owner of a lost or stolen gun to report it to authorities, Milkman said. This is a huge problem in cities like Philadelphia, because guns are easy to acquire in a short amount of time.
Ubinãs said that, in Philadelphia, it only takes seven minutes.
“None of those legislators are going to come and save us, we have to save ourselves,” Ubinãs said, reminding the crowd that if a real change was to happen, they would have to do it together.
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