When I meet Bilal, a 38-year-old security guard at Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, it’s hard to tell that he spent 15 years in prison for first degree murder. He’s a family man now, married and raising three girls, and he’s soft spoken and a little pudgy around the middle. Nearly two decades ago, he was a leader of a splinter group of one of Chicago’s most notorious street gangs, the Gangster Disciples. After converting to Islam in prison and changing his name from Anthony, he committed himself to trying to prevent young men from his neighborhood from following in his footsteps and eventually found his way to CeaseFire, a group that works to stop conflicts before they erupt into violence.
Driving with him through the South Side community of Englewood on the way to take his infant daughter and school-age stepdaughters home, it’s clear that an interrupter’s work doesn’t end when a conflict does. He pulls up to a group of young men on the corner, slows the car, and ask, “Y’all alright?”
Then he continues on down the street and points to a white SUV in front of us, telling me that the owner was shot and killed about a month ago. He pulls up alongside it and a black woman in her 30’s with neatly pressed hair and light-colored sunglasses covering tired-looking eyes rolls down the window. She tells Bilal that she’s thankful to be up today. At a bus stop across the street, a group of four teenage girls laugh and chatter with each other, all wearing matching white sweatshirts with “RIP Chris” scrawled across the front in sparkling red letters. Loss is so common here that it’s become fashionable.
On January 29, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton became the city’s new symbol of loss. Just days removed from performing with a high school group at President Obama’s second inauguration in Washington, DC, Pendleton was shot and killed as she stood with friends in a neighborhood park. That another young, black life was so senselessly ended—just days after helping to celebrate the most powerful black politician in history—has added yet another macabre twist to Chicago’s tale of tragic deaths.
In 2012, the city recorded 506 homicides, an increase of more than 16 percent over 2011. The New York Times reported that those homicides were isolated to certain geographic areas in the city, indicative of longstanding segregation and a city that remains divided. In 2013, the killings have continued at a frightening pace; in January alone, 42 people were killed by guns. That’s the worst rate of homicide in 10 years.
“There’s a needed coordination on the national level at this point,” Cathy Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and founder of the Black Youth Project, said on MSNBC recently. “People are trying to do whatever they can, from community groups, NGO’s, to faith-based communities, but there’s a leadership and coordination that’s needed from the national level.” Cohen was speaking to her group’s petition to get President Obama to “come home” to Chicago to address the violence.
Locally, after Pendleton’s murder Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel implored residents to take action. “It is incumbent on all of us who have a responsibility to see a stop to this. And all of us are responsible, all adults,” Emanuel said. Yet the onslaught of death has begged difficult questions for those seeking to stop it. Can you address the violence without first dealing with its roots? And how do you even begin to work on the roots of violence while its tangling vines are spreading so rapidly?
Across the city, those who work directly with young people are walking a thin line between addressing immediate acts of violence and focusing on long term intervention. Bilal represents one approach, which has drawn national attention for its innovative way of thinking about violence: not as a criminal justice problem, but as a public health challenge. But others are asking an uncomfortable question about that innovation: Once a life is saved, what do you do with it?
CeaseFire was founded by Gary Slutkin, a doctor who is trained in infectious disease control, and its work has won national praise. In their model, people like Bilal work as emergency responders in South and West side neighborhoods. When they hear about a brewing conflict, they walk into the middle of it and talk to the people involved to try to de-escalate the situation before it becomes violent. They’re trained in how to manage tense situations, but their most important asset is their deep ties to the community. In short, they’re conflict mediators with street credibility.
It’s hard to tally exactly how many lives have been saved because the work happens on such an interpersonal level. But perhaps just as important as interrupting violence itself, the group’s work has shifted the focus from police and prosecutors administering punishment, to communities intervening to de-escalate conflicts.
Its work also posits a different way of thinking about violence—not through the lens of crime and order, but rather through that of public health. In this view, violence spreads like a disease, in much the same way as cholera or tuberculosis.
To help illustrate this point, the group cites the case of a deadly cholera outbreak in London back in 1854. For years, 19th century scientists thought that cholera was caused by pollution, or “bad air.” Then in September of that year, a deadly cholera epidemic spread quickly through the city’s Soho district, killing upwards of 500 people in a matter of weeks. One local resident was a doctor named John Snow, who had already made a name for himself as an anaestheseologist. Snow did not buy the “bad air” theory, and lived close enough to the outbreak to see that it was following a pattern. He then began interviewing residents, and was eventually led to a water pump on a corner in South London. After examining a sample of the water under a microscope, Snow discovered white particles—which we now call “bacteria”—floating in the water, and determined that all of the deaths could be traced back to people who had been exposed to the contaminated water.
In CeaseFire’s view, the modern day equivalent of contaminated water is untreated trauma. Chicago’s victims of violence aren’t just those who are maimed or buried because of gunfire, but the witnesses, friends, and family members who are left traumatized by it. Some may feel compelled to commit a violent act in retaliation, which then spurs another act of retaliation, continuing a deadly domino effect.
The best way to combat that violence is not with more cops on the street and longer prison sentences, just as quarantining cholera victims in 18th century London would have done little to stop the epidemic without identifying the contaminated water supply. Instead, the Bilals of Chicago aren’t just working to stop conflicts, but also trying to change people’s norms and behaviors in the process by showing that there are alternatives to violence.
This has become the dominant frame for understanding and responding to Chicago’s violence. In 2012, the city awarded a $1 million grant to CeaseFire to partner with the Chicago Police Department and work in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. Last summer, CeaseFire announced plans to hire two dozen violence interrupters and pay them salaries of between $30,000 to $45,000 to mediate conflicts.
Critics blasted the effort, saying that the money should have instead been used to hire more police officers. But the hope was that the interrupters would have the credibility in the community that police officers often lack. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters, “We initiated this operation to assist our detectives in solving violent crimes.” Tio Hardiman, CeaseFire’s Illinois Director, drilled down on collaboration’s importance, saying about the partnership, “It’s time for everybody to roll their sleeves up and get to work.”
The group even has a new name that reflects its approach: CURE violence.
But some say that this epidemiological approach is a Band-aid solution for a hemorrhaging problem.
“I support CeaseFire in the sense that it’s the community coming together and enforcing its own social control and not relying on the cops to come in,” says David Brotherton, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York City, noting that police intervention can often increase tension and distrust in a community. “The problem, however, is that the basic problems that fuel gang histories and trajectories are structural. Gangs are caused by people responding to massive levels of marginalization.
“What CeaseFire can’t do is create jobs, they can’t make society shift real resources to the poorest areas,” Brotherton said.
In this view, violence is a political challenge, and not just a public health one.
“There’s been a lack of political engagement from community members, ” says Alma Montes, 33, a former gang member and organizer in the city. “Nobody wants to talk about gun policy.”
Brotherton echoes this concern.
“We had programs in the United States in the 1960s that worked really well and we demolished them,” he says, referring to the War on Poverty under President Lyndon Johnson and efforts that lost momentum after the 1960s. “Not because they failed, but because they worked too well.”
When the Census bureau began tracking poverty rates in 1959, over 22 percent of the country was living in poverty. The federal government began implementing anti-poverty programs in cities across the country, driving the national rate down to close to 11 percent by 1973. But in the course of the Reagan era, the war on poverty was abandoned in urban areas around the country. Today, nearly one in three black people in Chicago, over 32 percent, are living in poverty. That’s the highest number of all American big cities.
“Any intervention must be about economic power as well as political power,” says Brotherton.
The Wicker Park office of Young Chicago Authors is filled with writers, so it’s no surprise that they take issue with the language that’s used to talk about violence in their city. Namely, that it’s an “epidemic,” a disease that can be talked about it scientific terms.
Chris Harvey, 29, youth mentor at BUILD.
“When the whole world is telling you that violence is a disease that you’ve caught, it’s disempowering,” says Mariah Nueroth, who works as community liaison with Young Chicago Authors. “That language is problematic because it puts all the responsibility on a young person, and no scientist would say ‘here’s the individual factor and we’re not going to look at the context.’ “
Young Chicago Authors is a literary arts organization for youth that develops young writers and sends them to conduct poetry workshops in classrooms across the city. Some of the group’s youth have had intimate brushes with violence, while nearly all of them see the devestation firsthand in the writing of the youth in their workshops. So even Nueroth admits the usefulness of CeaseFire’s approach in an environment where so violence is so widespread. “We’re not going out with our poems into the middle of a gang fight,” she says.
But for organizers like Nueroth, the work is in some ways a longer term version of CeaseFire’s, based on developing young people’s leaderships skills and raising their political awareness, not just keeping them out of conflict.
“When you set up a program that allows kids to be themselves, you can get them to think outside of their boxes,” says Guillermo Gutierrez, who’s spent the past 13 years doing gang intervention work and training young organizers at Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development, or BUILD, another group that focuses on long term leadership development.
Under any other circumstances, the offices of BUILD would be a youth organizer’s paradise. The 40-year-old organization has real resources, that afford things like developing youth leadership inside the group. Its walls are lavender and soft yellows, decorated with elaborate artwork that’s created by young people. It’s got two teen counseling rooms, a computer lab, a teen cafe, brightly lit conference rooms and 10,000 square feet of wide open land that they hope to convert into athletic fields.
But on the three occasions that I visited the center, it was nearly empty. Its counselors and mentors were out in the streets, doing direct outreach. This fact underscores the reality that a long term strategy faces real challenges when there’s an onslaught of death that’s demanding everyone’s immediate attention. The center doubles as a sort of command center and cool down space, and staff members try to make the facilities open to whomever needs them.
Miguel Rodriguez, 20, is an artist and community organizer at BUILD in Chicago. (Photo: Jamilah King/Colorlines)
Still, Miguel Rodriguez, 20, is proof that it’s crucial for young organizers to look at the long term. He came to BUILD as a 14-year-old graffiti writer facing criminal charges for defacing public property. Looking back, he says that he was “trying to find a purpose and wrote on walls so that the world knows that I’m here.”
Today, Rodriguez works as a youth engagement specialist helping other youth work through what he calls “emotional violence.” Next year, he’ll start a new position as artistic director at Graffiti Zone, an after school arts program in Chicago.
But the stories of a select few young people who have managed to navigate Chicago’s minefield of violence doesn’t reconcile the dozens of others who are lost each year. Chicago has become our most stunning example of the disposable quality of black life, a reality that often gets lost amid the clamor to believe that we’re beyond the racial inequities that have shaped this country. Chicago’s problem is the nation’s problem, just as Newtown and Aurora were. While no one has clear answers, the bloodshed in Chicago shows that it’s important to at least ask the right questions, and those start with engaging the people at the center of the bloodshed.