The Violence Interrupters

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

A dozen of us stood around a dead flower and a piece of bare sidewalk. There may have been more ho-hum in my heart than grief, at least at first, but slowly something started to break.

“Oh God, have mercy.” This is what we chanted.

I paw at hope as I write about this — hope for Chicago, where I live, hope for this country and hope for peace. I say those last words with humility and skepticism, aware of how small I felt as I stood in this group, but knowing I was only there because a large turning is in motion.

“Oh God, we come before you today, crying out for the shooting initiated by Anthony Morgan, which led to his death on this corner of our neighborhood Tuesday night.”

In the annals of homicide, this is a three-paragraph story on page 8. A 21-year-old man/boy was walking along Pratt Boulevard on Chicago’s Far North Side — my neighborhood, Rogers Park — one balmy evening last week. A police car drove past, he started walking the other way, the cops thought this was suspicious and stopped, Morgan started running, an officer started chasing him, then — according to police — Morgan fired three shots at the officer. The officer fired back and killed him. Morgan fell into the parkway, where neighbors had planted flowers, landing on one of them as he died.

I live about four blocks away and was walking home from my train stop as Morgan was in the process of running, shooting and dying. I saw the flashing blue lights on Pratt, a few blocks ahead of me, but I’m a big city boy, used to sirens, cops and commotion. I didn’t think anything of it and continued on my way, learning only the next day that I’d almost walked into a shooting in progress.

Here’s where I ponder my own calloused heart — my diminished sense of community, my protective withdrawal into “me and mine” mentality. I could, upon hearing the story, have reduced the dead young man to “probably a gangbanger” status and given the incident no more thought, by which I mean, consign my fleeting awareness of another pointless shooting to some generic hell in my imagination and pretend I’ve forgotten about it. Life goes on, etc.

What happened instead is that I ran into my neighbor, Sally Youngquist, a minister who, it turns out, is linked up with CeaseFire, a citywide organization — part of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention — that for the past dozen years has quietly been dealing with violence as a public-health issue and building coalitions in high-risk Chicago neighborhoods (including my own!) for the purpose of interrupting predictable cycles of violence and lowering the horrific kill count in those neighborhoods.

There are reasons to believe the program, which is a project of the University of Illinois/Chicago Department of Public Health, is having a significant effect. According to the organization’s Web site, shootings and killings have dropped substantially in neighborhoods where CeaseFire has been active. For example: “Beat 1413 in Logan Square went from worst beat in (Chicago) in 2003 with seven killings to no killings in 2004, which coincides with more than a doubling of CeaseFire effort.”

These efforts include public education, mediation and other forms of direct violence intervention by street-savvy, courageous staff members and volunteers, possibly after a shooting has occurred and the likelihood of a retaliatory shooting is high. These folks — called “violence interrupters” — will get out of bed in the middle of the night, if necessary, to visit a trouble spot and talk sense to the armed and aggrieved.

“When someone gets shot, or sometimes beaten or stabbed, and the hospital chaplains or trauma team members believe there is potential for retaliation, they call me,” writes Elena Quintana at “Sometimes they call me in the middle of a meeting, or during dinner, but often I’m called late at night. It is not uncommon to be called two or three times a day. I was called six times in the last 24 hours. It’s July, and this is the killing season.”

Quintana, who manages a violence-intervention partnership between CeaseFire and Advocate Christ Medical Center in the Chicago neighborhood of Oak Lawn, goes on to explain that, when she learns of a dangerous situation, she taps her community resources — the violence interrupters — who visit the site and do what they can to defuse whatever is going on. Where such programs are active, violence rates drop.

I write about this in wonder. This is the “technology of peace” — almost as invisible as the headlines it prevents.

CeaseFire’s coalition-building efforts are extensive, and its efforts aren’t limited to intervention. Not every shooting, in our volatile society, can be prevented, but the tear in the social fabric from each bullet hole must be repaired. Thus two days after Anthony Morgan’s shooting, Sally led a brief, nondenominational service at the spot of his death that hallowed and reclaimed an ordinary stretch of sidewalk and made me — a resident of this neighborhood for 30 years — feel a deeper connection to it than I ever have before.