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Community Peacemakers in Chicago Offer a Proven Alternative to Policing

As calls to defund police grow, peacemakers on the frontlines of Chicago’s gun violence epidemic have dramatically reduced homicides and shootings.

Community peacemakers
Institute for Nonviolence Chicago

Imagine a world where after being accused of using a counterfeit bill, George Floyd was approached by a community member who helped mediate the situation, rather than the police officer who suffocated him as he begged for his life. A world where Rayshard Brooks was not murdered for falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot, but given a ride home. A world where Elijah McClain was not choked and injected with ketamine for “acting suspicious,” but simply asked by a neighbor how he was doing.

Those in power would have us believe that such a world is impossible — but for the past four years, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago has been providing a roadmap for what this radical reimagining of justice might look like.

For decades, Chicago has been plagued by gun violence, which has taken the lives of more than 350 people in the city this year. Nonviolence Chicago’s workers are guided by Martin Luther King’s principles and defuse conflict through mediation rather than by force. Whenever there is a shooting, outreach workers arrive at the scene within 30 minutes to advocate against retaliation — and even when they insert themselves in potentially dangerous situations, they do not wear bullet proof vests and refuse to carry weapons.

“People who are involved in violence are human, just like anyone else,” said Sam Castro, the institute’s outreach program supervisor. “They need love and resources.”

The institute was founded in 2015, right after the city was left reeling from yet another devastating loss. This time, it was the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he ran away. The increasingly-militarized Chicago Police Department later funded an elaborate cover-up, further confirming that they could not be depended on to address the homicide rates in the community. In fact, police were frequently the purveyors of violence themselves.

In Chicago, this violence is especially appalling: It includes the assassination of the Black revolutionary Fred Hampton in 1969, two decades of torturing Black suspects, imprisoning thousands at a secretive interrogation site and spending millions of taxpayer dollars on brutality settlements while local schools are shuttered due to lack of funds.

The background of the institute’s founder, Teny Gross, prepared him to relate to the violence in Chicago — both as a victim and perpetrator. On the one hand, members of his family had been persecuted by the Nazis and killed during the Holocaust. On the other, he helped enforce a violent military occupation during his time in the Israeli Defense Force, a perspective which moved him to spend the rest of his life studying, teaching and practicing a philosophy of nonviolence.

Since 2015, the institute has expanded to Austin, Back of Yards and West Garfield Park — some of the city’s most at-risk districts. Most of its workers grew up in the neighborhoods they serve. As Senior Director Chris Patterson explained, “Many of our staff have been formerly incarcerated or gang involved — and yet, when given an opportunity and purpose, they dedicate their entire lives to shaping the lives of others. They put on their invisible capes everyday to go out and help people.”

Although it’s impossible to attribute lowering crime levels in Chicago to any one source, Nonviolence Chicago’s outreach has been overwhelmingly successful. Between 2016 and 2019, Austin had 47 percent fewer homicides and 45 percent fewer nonfatal shootings. After leading the city in homicides for over a decade, Austin had the sharpest reduction in violence in 2018.

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Similar organizations have had positive results in other cities, including Philadelphia, Nashville, Oakland and Washington, D.C.

Restorative justice in action

Unlike the United States’ current criminal justice system, which aims to punish people after they commit acts of violence, Nonviolence Chicago focuses on nurturing and empowering at-risk individuals so that they can prevent violence from ever taking place. In 2019 alone, its workers were able to make 45,467 contacts with individuals involved in violence.

“When we do our job, people don’t get shot, and they also don’t go to jail,” Patterson said. “When there’s a conflict, we’ve asked community members to try calling us before they call the police. We’ve said that in front of the police, and they agree.”

Before joining Nonviolence Chicago’s team, Castro spent nearly 17 years in state and federal prisons. His past has enabled him to reach out to people who are going through what he once was. “If you’re a person who’s never lived through it, and you see a shooting on TV where an innocent bystander gets shot, you might be like, ‘Why would somebody do that? They’re monsters,’” Castro said. “But for me, it used to be normal. You don’t know what these people go through — we had trauma, we had bottled up anger, we had frustrations. We were looking for love, and we found it on the street.”

To demonstrate the power of violence intervention, Castro often shares a story about a group of young people who had a reputation for being involved in violence in the community. “I went to their house. There were maybe 13 guys and 15 guns. I took off my shirt, we ordered pizza. We talked for about four hours,” Castro said. Later, he assisted their mothers with resources, and got a few of the men jobs. “Now, whenever I see them, they’ll pull up their shirts, and be like, ‘Hey, we don’t got no guns! We’re about to go play basketball.’”

For Tasha Poplous, a victims advocate for Nonviolence Chicago, the work of building relationships with people immersed in violence is deeply personal. “I’ve lost someone in my life to gun violence,” she said. “After a while, the text messages and the phone calls slow down. But everybody needs someone, in one way or another. They need to know that someone cares about them.”

Whenever there is a shooting in the neighborhood she serves, Poplous will track down the victims to visit them in the hospital. In some cases, she is their only visitor — and her presence can be critical when it comes to discouraging retaliatory shootings. “I tell them if they don’t want to end up in jail or end up dead, they have to take precautions,” she said. “Some of them are welcoming. Even when they’re bleeding from every which way, they’ll say, ‘Yes, I need your help.’”

For many people involved in violence, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to speak about a lifetime of trauma, which is an experience that can be transformative. “I’ve been shot a few times, and I never talked to anybody about it,” Castro said. “The hard part is getting them to open up.”

Since the pandemic, Poplous is no longer able to visit victims in hospitals. The virus has also impacted her role in planning funerals and memorial services for those lost to gun violence. As funeral homes try to adhere to social distancing protocols, Nonviolence Chicago’s workers have been standing outside, limiting the amount of people who can go in. They’ve also been comforting families who have been robbed of their chance to properly mourn their loved ones.

Even when the world isn’t in the midst of a pandemic, being on the frontlines can be emotionally exhausting — especially because being available to respond to community members in crisis can leave little room for self-care. Recent weeks have been especially busy for the institute’s peacemakers, who have been protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd while trying to de-escalate conflict to keep the community safe, facing pepper spray in the process.

“Quite a few times we were able to help people in dire situations,” said Patterson, who recounted a shooting that took place after a group of people stole a TV from a family’s van during one of the protests. “A member of the family was grazed, and the car was so messed up with bullets that they were pretty much stranded. The family had guns, and they were initially so panicked that they were ready to shoot anything that came their way. But we were able to calm them down, and we gave them a ride home. If we hadn’t been there, who knows what that could have turned into.”

Shootings, which have increased due to tensions surrounding the pandemic, continue to rise as the weather gets warmer. Father’s Day weekend was especially brutal — with more than 100 people shot and 14 people killed, including five children.

“We feel like if we don’t take a call, or if we take a day off, something may happen to a person,” Castro said. “I understand that sometimes you can’t save people, but it still hurts my heart when a person is killed. You always think, ‘Man, did we do everything we could have done?’”

The institutional violence fueling gun violence

The peacemakers of Nonviolence Chicago take on many roles, but at the heart of all their work is a willingness to reach out to people and meet them where they are. “Our job is to connect and build relationships, whether they’re the person being shot or the person doing the shooting,” Castro said. “At the end of the day, they’re both victims of something.”

In a country founded on white supremacy that maintains the largest imprisonment rate in the world, it’s impossible to combat street violence without confronting the institutional violence that fuels it. For decades, impoverished Black and Latino youth have been criminalized by a war on drugs designed to incentivize the mass incarceration of human beings for free labor and profit. This so-called “war” has willfully devastated low-income communities of color, like many areas of Chicago, that already faced segregation and housing discrimination.

Combined with police corruption and lax gun laws in neighboring states, where nearly 60 percent of the guns in Chicago come from, these policies have been lethal. Never has this been more evident than during the pandemic — one in six of Chicago’s coronavirus cases can be traced back to Cook County Jail, where 1,000 employees and detainees have tested positive.

“Mass incarceration may be working for those old farmers who now have a new plantation, but it’s not working for Black America, so restorative justice is an answer,” Patterson said.

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that focuses on addressing the harm that crime causes to people, relationships and community. The theory emphasizes cooperation between offenders and victims, the prevention of future harm and rehabilitation.

Because people often turn to violence as a means of survival, the workers of Nonviolence Chicago believe that providing the community with resources is a vital element of violence prevention. Since the pandemic began, their team has been distributing hundreds of meals, boxes of groceries and hygiene kits each week. They’ve quickly adapted to addressing people’s needs as they arise — including helping families pay rent, connecting essential workers with daycares and finding shelter for people who are homeless.

“It’s important for people to understand that this wasn’t some white savior who came from outside of the community,” said Tara Dabney, the institute’s director of communications. “The people that the rest of the country see as ‘violent’ or as throwaways — because they have been convicted — these are the people who have never stopped working. They’ve been there since day one, responding to both COVID and violence in ways that are loving and compassionate and real.”

Building Chicago’s beloved community

The ultimate vision of Nonviolence Chicago is not simply to end the cycle of violence, but to create what King called “a beloved community” — a fellowship of human beings built on redemption, reconciliation and radical love. According to King, this requires both “a qualitative change in our souls and a qualitative change in our lives.”

“I’ve had staff who have been in jail for murder who have shed tears when people die on the street, because they understand how tragic the loss of life really is,” Patterson said. “There’s a strength and toughness, but also a tender care from people who have been downtrodden for so long. Chicago is full of beautiful, spirited people … and when given the opportunity to change their life, most people take it.”

In wake of the current uprisings, the institute’s peacemakers are hoping to develop a model that can be used by communities across the country. Because street outreach usually takes place in neighborhoods that outsiders rarely step foot in, they’ve also been encouraging volunteers to join them in passing out food, so that they can witness what restorative justice looks like in action. Lastly, they hope to increase the city’s budget for street outreach, which is currently only $11.5 million, as opposed to the more than $2.45 billion allocated to the Chicago Police Department.

When the institute first expanded to Austin in 2016, workers struggled to get the word out about nonviolence. “Now there are people on the streets quoting Dr. King — I’m talking about gang-involved individuals,” Patterson said. “They may not be able to understand all the principles, but they understand ‘beloved community.’”

Loretta Graceffo is a writer, artist and activist from New Jersey. She currently attends Saint Peter's University.