Anti-Crime Posters Shed Light on Philly's Problems

After a record number of deaths in Philadelphia last year, one anti-violence poster offered residents a gritty look at what was going on in their community. But not everyone in city government was pleased with the pictures against crime. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney and designer Frank Baseman talk about the anti-violence posters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, the message could not be more blunt. The names of the 406 Philadelphia murder victims from 2006, listed from top to bottom, with a 9mm handgun in the middle. Frank Baseman designed the anti-crime ads. They're his protest to the violence that has seized the city. He placed some of them around the city without official permission, and not everybody is pleased. City officials disapprove of the ads and want the posters removed. They think the message could be confusing to residents.

With us to talk about this is the ad's designer, Frank Baseman, and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney, who wrote about the posters. They join us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. FRANK BASEMAN (Ad Designer): Thank you for having us.

Ms. MONICA YANT KINNEY (Columnist, The Philadelphia Inquirer): Thanks.

MARTIN: Frank, as I understand, you don't even live within the city's boundaries.

Mr. BASEMAN: Well, I live right outside the city, you know. And I certainly call Philadelphia my home.

MARTIN: And the poster - the headline of the poster, City of Brotherly Love, with a question mark. And it ends with stop the violence. How did you - and as I said, there's the names and this 9mm in the middle, big. Why did you decide on that image, those words?

Mr. BASEMAN: Well, it's kind of my personal statement. Everybody knows that Philadelphia is called the City of Brotherly Love, so I was questioning that. But then I was also coming back with a very emphatic statement, which is just stop the violence.

MARTIN: Monica, what are your impressions about the posters? You've written about it.

Ms. KINNEY: I came to know of Frank and the poster after spending most of the summer writing about the escalating homicide crisis in the city. And actually writing about suburban apathy, or if not apathy, a suburban anger toward it in the sense that they didn't care. Column after column was generating response from people outside the city as if, you know, why do you keep doing this? Why do you care? Why are you writing about thugs killing thugs? And then...

MARTIN: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Let me just...

Ms. KINNEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let me understand this. You're saying that people were actually objecting the coverage of the homicide situation.

Ms. KINNEY: Yeah. We are - I hate to say it, but the city of Philadelphia, there is often a feeling among people outside the city that if you can't somehow prove that the victim was pure, that somehow they're not valued. And I'd write these columns and I would just, you know, pull my hair out with the response because everyone has a mother who loves them. Everyone has a brother who misses them. Every life has a value, regardless of how it was lived and how it was taken from you.

And so I was in the middle of my own frustration as a writer when I came to hear from Frank about this poster. And thought here's a guy who - he doesn't have to do anything. He lives in the safety of a very lovely suburb. And he's putting himself out there on his own time, his own dime to try to do something to shake people up.

You know, he's right in saying that - neither he nor I as a writer are so naive as to think that a poster is going to, you know, solve this crisis. But I got to the point where I just started feeling like it can't hurt. Nothing can make it worse. This has got to help. And that feeling, it made me so stunned that the poster was rejected by the city.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Now, I have to say, we did contact the city of Philadelphia regarding this issue. City officials declined our invitation to join our conversation today. But acting communications director Joe Grace sent an e-mail summarizing the city's position. We're going to post it in it's entirety on our Web site. But a couple of points he made. He reiterated that the city has final approval over ads. He says that we've disapproved other ads before in a host of occasions.

He says that the city is not shying away from this issue at all, but he says our consensus view - our Police and Public Property departments - was this ad sent too mixed a message about violence for the city to endorse it for placement on the bus shelters. That's the end of the quote. So Monica, what do you think?

Ms. KINNEY: I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I mean, the bottom line is that there are other anti-violence public service campaigns out there. They all feature a gun in some variety. One of them actually has a gun piercing a heart, splattering black blood. I mean, it's hardly a subtle image. I fear that Frank ran into a couple of, perhaps, mid-level bureaucrats who felt that they just, you know, artistically didn't agree with his image. But I have to say that, by in large, my readers were completely outraged over this. I mean, more and more, I'm hearing from people who say the city officials have just given up. They've put their heads in the sand.

And while there are certainly different programs that are being introduced, the reality is that if the dead were, you know, white people from the suburbs, maybe they'd be more outraged. If the dead were being killed in the middle of Center City Philadelphia, maybe they would be more outrage.

Well, here's Frank. He's got outrage. He's got names. He's got ages. He's got the manner in which they were killed. And they're all splayed out on this poster. And it's something that would, at the very least, get people thinking and get them outraged. And no one gets to see it.

MARTIN: Is it that - Monica, is that your fear that people are just weary? They're accepting this as being normal now?

Ms. KINNEY: Well, let me just say that when I wrote this column about a week ago, the death toll was at 264. When I wrote another column in Sunday's paper, it was at 271 - five days later. We've come to expect that every weekend, there's going to be five more bodies stacking up. And, you know, it's a gun problem. It's a poverty problem. It's a race problem. It's a economic problem. It is huge. It is multilayered.

MARTIN: Frank, what do you make of the city's response?

Mr. BASEMAN: I think it's kind of - silly is probably not the right word. Disappointed. Surprised. Ridiculous. I'm not going to get into a full-blown critique of the merits or dismerits of one poster over another, as much as just to say can there really be too many? I mean, what's the big deal if this was out there in addition to the other campaigns that are out there? Can it hurt more than what's happening now?

MARTIN: What about families of the victims? As you said, it is reminiscent of the - I think even - Monica, I think you talked about this. Like the Vietnam veterans memorial, which lists the casualties in Vietnam.

Mr. BASEMAN: That was on purpose. I mean, it was meant to be...

MARTIN: Is that, that was the inspiration?

Mr. BASEMAN: Yeah. It was meant to be an homage to those victims.

MARTIN: Have any of the family members of the people named in the poster expressed their view about this?

Ms. KINNEY: In the months and months of writing about this, the thing I hear most consistently from families is I don't want my child, my brother, my sister, to be just known as homicide number 142. They want a name. They want an identity. They want the story out there. As evidence of how widespread this problem is, the families of homicide victims in Philadelphia are responsible for coming up with the rewards. So all across the city, you have people who are grieving, who are mourning, who are trying to cope with anger, people from disadvantaged neighborhoods who probably struggled many times to even come up with money for a funeral are then told it's going to take at least a thousand dollars because no one comes forward for less than that. And you've got to find a way to put it up.

You know, have a car wash. Do a beef and beer, or have a fundraiser. And as the families tell me, the only thing worse than losing a loved one to homicide is letting the killer get away with it. But yet, somehow now, they are responsible for helping to solve the case. And it's insult on top of tragedy. And the families were - I mean, they're amazing, but not everyone can do that.

MARTIN: Right. Monica, finally, is there anything giving you comfort?

Ms. KINNEY: I will say that the families that I encounter week after week give me comfort because they are outraged. And they more and more tell me within out community, within our families, within our neighborhoods, we have to find a way to change this. But no, I don't take much comfort from city hall deciding that they didn't like this poster. They didn't like his art. I take no comfort from that.

MARTIN: Monica Yant Kinney is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. We're also joined by designer Frank Baseman. They both joined us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. And I want to reiterate that we did offer an invitation to the city of Philadelphia to discuss this with us. They declined, but we'll post the statement that they sent to us on our Web site.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. BASEMAN: Thank you.

Ms. KINNEY: Thanks for having us.

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Philadelphia's Response to Anti-Crime Posters:

The City regularly reviews proposed ads that go on bus shelters and has the final responsibility and authority to approve or disapprove the ads.

We've disapproved other ads before on a host of occasions.

Our consensus view – our Police and Public Property departments – was this ad sent too mixed a message about violence for the city to endorse it for placement on the bus shelters.

The top phrase, "City of Brotherly Love?", seems to create an overall impression that could be construed as violent, combined with the gun image.

It is very important to note the City does NOT shrink away from the violence issue, even in terms of messages and other images we've endorsed.

We recently endorsed the "Put It Down" campaign created by a team of party promoters, who are taking that campaign into urban neighborhoods around the city to reach youths and young adults with some fairly edgy messages about anti-violence.

The central image of the Put It Down campaign poster is a handgun encircled by a heart. BUT that image is surrounded by the large words, PUT IT DOWN.

The message of that ad is clear and unmistakable – PUT THE GUNS DOWN. We endorsed it wholeheartedly.

In addition, last summer the City supported a PSA campaign TV ad created by ABC6 Action News, in concert with the City, featuring the mayor, the governor, Ryan Howard of the Phillies, Bernard Hopkins, Sylvester Stallone and others.

The central message of that PSA campaign was THIS IS OUR HOUSE. Another key message in that PSA was the phrase, "LAY IT DOWN" – a clear reference to laying your gun down. It featured police sirens, flashing red lights, and was clearly a gritty message aimed at reducing and preventing violence.

We don't shy away from this issue AT ALL.

We just felt this particular ad sent too mixed a message about violence and it just wasn't appropriate for bus shelters across the city.

We value everyone who wants to participate in the city's Operation Safer Streets campaign to reduce and prevent violence, including the creators of this ad. We thank the creators of this ad for their ideas and their willingness to help. We just don't feel this particular ad was appropriate for a city-sponsored bus shelter.

Joe Grace, Acting Communications Director, Office of the Mayor

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