This entry is taken from another blog site: peace.ashokalab.org and focuses on peace and conflict resolution issues . I write a couple of times a month for this blog, and this is a past entry about an experience I had when I worked at Ashoka. It’s slightly dated, but still an interesting reflection.
Sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.
Last night, on a crisp Chicago summer evening, Tony’s teenage niece was shot 17 times. A few years ago, Tony would be standing on the killer’s doorstep, gun in hand and hatred in heart. Instead today, he sits in a room with 40 of his peers, developing specific strategies to prevent others from acting upon that same violent urge he has learned to suppress.
Tony is a Violence Interrupter. He, along with these 40 other men and women are employed by CeaseFire, a Chicago-based organization which aims to end gun violence in urban areas. To accomplish this goal, they take a multi-faceted approach, one which includes a hands-on public education and outreach campaign paired with the work of Violence Interrupters like Tony; these components are means to one end: to show people that shooting another human being is not normal.
As I sit in the Violence Interruptor meeting, I ponder the word “normal,” and flounce upon the idea of its subjectivity. My definition of normality would certainly take on a different shape than the kid who killed Tony’s niece. But then I recall a recent meeting with program founder Gary Slutkin, who noted that social norms are driven by one’s fear of disobeying them. The whole aim of Ceasefire and the work of these Violence Interrupters is to bring objectivity to normality; shooting someone shouldn’t just be abnormal to me and you, but also to the 14-year old drug dealer on the corner of 9th and Broadway, and the abducted child soldier in the war-torn corners of scattered African countries. Behavior change is not such an extraordinary concept; and certainly Slutkin’s goals are simple and realizable. For example: Twenty years ago, nobody would have blinked twice if I lit up a cigarette in this very meeting. Today, to consider lighting up would mean facing a looming sheet of scorn and opposition, one which would most likely deter me from doing so. So why not make violence, even in the most violent societies, unacceptable and abnormal?
The Violence Interrupters at this meeting at living proof that behavior can dramatically change. These individuals are former perpetrators, ex-felons and ex-gang members. They have a history of violence, a history of carrying a gun, and/or involvement in gang activity or leadership. They know the code of the streets; they know who owns the block, who has the last word, and who orchestrates business dealings. More importantly, they know what goes through someone’s head when he’s about to take another human life.
A hefty interrupter with a vintage handlebar moustache and a plunging voice raises his hand. He is leaning so far over the table with the excitement of engaging that it seems almost to be attached at his hip. When referencing any of his colleagues, he never fails to maintain the politest of airs, explaining the relationship between he and fellow interruptors “Mr. Joe” and “Mr. Ed.” “At one time,” he says, “we couldn’t stand each other. But now we love each other.”
If you poked your head into this room, the word “love” would most likely not be used to describe this seemingly rough and tough group of individuals. But there is a lot of love in this room. It is a room full of thought, heroism, compassion, empathy, and most unexpectedly, peace.
Also present in this room is tragedy. For the hour or two this meeting lasts, the Interrupters share the week’s conflicts. The 16-year old girl with the 5-year old daughter who uses her sexuality to play guys against each other. The 7 dead after a game of dice gone sour. The smashed-in face of a guy who looked at another’s girl the wrong way. The 4-year old caught in the crossfire of a fight no child should ever understand:
Homicide by firearm is the leading cause of death in African American males in the United States, and second leading cause of death among American youth. 90% of these shootings have been found to be group-based, directly related to group and peer pressures. As with a disease, we see violent behavioral symptoms spread through concentrated groups of people.
We normally see with lenses that distinguish certain aspects of life as black, others as white. We put “good people” in one pile, and “bad people” in another. It is difficult, terrifying perhaps, to see shades of gray. Shades of gray upset the tranquility of normalcy; and so we are afraid to see them. But what if, for a moment, we apply Gary Slutkin’s theory on social norms to our own perceptions of the world? What if shades of gray become the norm, so that eventually seeing things in black and white was no longer acceptable. What happens when you entrust a former enemy with helping bring the rest of the enemy population over to your side? What happens when you believe that there are only good and bad behaviors, learned behaviors, instead of good and bad people?
Tony happens. And Ginelle, and Ed and Joe and all of the Violence Interrupters happen. Ceasefire happens. And all of a sudden, you see expectations starting to shift. Perhaps understanding those we thought we could never understand is an answer we’ve been looking for.
An hour after the Violence Interrupter meeting has adjourned, we find ourselves in West Garfield, a rough neighborhood of Chicago. On each block corner stands a group of five or six teenage boys, no older than 17, in “uniform:” jean pants, a white t-shirt, and a blue or red baseball cap pulled shrewdly over the eyes, so as to make if difficult for the authorities to identify any specific individual after an incident. Girls who couldn’t be older than 14 or 15 push around strollers with wiggling daughters and sons. From shady front porches, grandmothers cast powerless eyes over parentless grandchildren as they frolic playfully through the streets.
We walk with Ceasefire outreach workers throughout the neighborhood, passing out bumper stickers like lollipops. Even the intimidatingly organized boys on the street corners give us a friendly smile and take the stickers with pleasure. They support Ceasefire; they don’t want to kill each other, but it’s the only way they know how to make their point. Right now, my definition of what is normal is vastly different than theirs. But I don’t believe it always has to be that way.
A street corner in West Garfield surrounded by echoes of violence and marked by the inner workings of gang culture was the last place I expected to find peace.
But sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.