/ 22 October 2009

A lesson in dodging bullets and confronting US gangs

The bullets start flying for all sorts of reasons. Gangs jostling for territory. Disrespecting someone’s sister. Some fool spraying champagne on people because he’s having fun on his birthday.

A year after Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States, life hasn’t changed much in the predominantly black ghettos on Chicago’s south side.

People are still poor. Kids are still dropping out of high school. And people still keep getting shot under the blinking blue lights of police video cameras.

That’s when the big guys with the orange Ceasefire logos on their hats and jackets step in.

They talk to people getting patched up at hospitals. They hold vigils and marches. And they try to break the cycle of retaliation in a city with more than 100 000 gang members.

A lot of times, it works.

A study funded by the US Justice Department found Ceasefire was able to reduce shootings by between 41% to 73% in the Chicago neighbourhoods it serves.

“It’s all about changing behaviours,” said Tio Hardiman, Ceasefire’s director of gang mediation and community organisation.

Ceasefire uses a public health model to address violence as an epidemic.

A public education campaign tries to deglamorise violence and emphasise the risks involved with slogans like “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.”

They work with churches and local organisations to get the community involved.

And they hire “credible messengers” to mediate disputes and reach out to those most at risk of getting involved in a shooting.

People like Ricardo Williams (37), who was locked up three times before he decided to walk away from his life on the streets and “do the right thing”.

Now he’s working to break up fights before the guns get pulled out.

‘These people got 100% good grade on the street’
Sometimes it’s simple, like the guy who owed a bunch of people money and asked Williams to help him negotiate repayment.

Sometimes it takes days of talking people down, like when a man got shot on his steps during a robbery and his girlfriend recognised the guys who did it.

And sometimes it takes years, like the hot-headed young gang members he mentors who keep asking what Williams can offer them to replace the money they make selling drugs.

“A lot of people I’ve been dealing with, they be just lost. They ain’t got nobody who’ll talk to them,” he said as he drove past boarded-up buildings in Englewood, one of the Chicago’s toughest neighbourhoods.

“Daddy might be locked up. Mamma might be on drugs … they got to raise themselves. That’s why they turn to the street.”

He takes them to ball games and the movies. He helps them find a job, get their high school diploma. He talks to them.

People listen, said a guy who goes by the name Big Mike, who went from dealing drugs and running illegal dog fights to working with the Humane Society to fight animal cruelty after Williams spent years “dragging my ears”.

“These people got 100% good grade on the street. They been there,” Big Mike (29) said of Ceasefire.

“They not the police. They are here to offer a hand. Some advice. They here to build character with you. Not to build character with cuffs.”

Obama’s election didn’t mean much to Big Mike.

“I’m not the type of person who believes in a lot of colours. Because right now, if it ain’t green [the colour of money], you ain’t going nowhere.”

‘If it was hopeless we wouldn’t be in this room’
The Ceasefire model has been adopted in several other cities across the United States and has been championed by Obama’s administration.

But it is constantly struggling to secure funding to hire outreach workers and keep neighbourhood offices open.

And the sheer scale and depth of the problem can be overwhelming.

Even though the murder rate has dropped sharply in recent years, there were still 511 people slain in Chicago last year. The typical victim was a young black man with a criminal record shot to death on the streets of the same troubled neighbourhoods.

Derrion Albert (16) was an honours student who never got into trouble until he was caught up in a fight as he was walking home from school on September 24. He made national news when a cellphone video emerged showing him being knocked over the head with a wooden plank and kicked repeatedly as he lay crumpled on the ground.

His aunt stood tall at a press conference when she told reporters: “We need to get to our children and find out what is the problem and why they are so angry and full of vengeance that they could even consider doing something like that to another human being.”

But back at the Ceasefire office in Roseland — the same neighbourhood where Obama worked as a community organiser — the strain is beginning to show as Bob Jackson and his team try to help her make the funeral arrangements.

Rose Braxton sighs as she tells them she needs to get her nephew’s body measured so they can buy him a suit to buried in.

He could have been living in a small town in southern Illinois with his mother but he liked it better in Chicago.

“He wanted to stay here,” she says.

Someone finally drives her home and Jackson leans back in his chair to plan Ceasefire’s next moves. They’ll have to track down the families of the other boys who got hurt, and of the four teens charged in Albert’s death.

The frustration pours out about the cycle of violence they face every day.

“Who’s helping the crack babies now that they’re 17 years old? And they’re having babies of their own,” Jackson says, his voice rising.

A lot of those kids grew up smoking crack with their parents and witnessing the violence that flows from the agitation of coming down.

“Nobody’s taught them how to deal,” Jackson says. “Why little Johnny can’t read? Johnny’s got all this stuff going on in his head. He’s all fried up. Can’t concentrate.”

Then Florence walks in. A crack addict who squats in a nearby abandoned building and hasn’t seen her eight kids in years, Florence has become another one of Jackson’s projects.

“I refuse to give up on Florence like I refuse to give up on this job,” Jackson says.

“If it was hopeless we wouldn’t be in this room.” — AFP