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Feature Tue Dec 13 2011

Pardon the Interruption

By Michael Moreci

Earlier this year, Tio Hardiman saved the life of a young man who was about to be murdered by an elder member of his own gang. There was a miscommunication when the young man abruptly disappeared to care for his ailing mother; at the same time, his gang was raided by the police, leaving the gang to suspect they'd been sold out. Hardiman got word of the execution that was about to take place and literally talked the elder gang member down — but not after having his own life threatened.

"He told me he was going to put me to sleep," Hardiman said.

For some, this intervention would be heroic act of courage; for Hardiman, it's another day at the office.

Hardiman is an "interrupter" for — and director of — CeaseFire, a non-violence organization based out of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The role of an interrupter is exactly what it sounds like — Hardiman, and others like him, work to prevent retaliatory violence.

"People can change, that's what we believe," Hardiman said. "We're in the business of changing behavior and mindsets associated with violence."

Over the past year, CeaseFire has seen its public profile skyrocket due to the release of The Interrupters, a documentary chronicling a year of CeaseFire. The film, produced by filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, portrays the dangerous and challenging work done by interrupters — they interact with gang members, speak at wakes of teens gunned down by street violence, and help convicted murderers make amends. Additionally, The Interrupters brings the philosophy of Dr. Gary Slutkin, epidemiologist and founder of CeaseFire, to the fore. Slutkin formed CeaseFire out his own studied philosophy, that violence is a contagious disease, one that's spread virally.

Yet for all the positive praise both the film and the organization has received, CeaseFire hasn't avoided scrutiny. There are some who doubt the organization's effectiveness — after all, there's no real way to quantify potential crime. CeaseFire claims to have accomplished a 70 percent reduction in homicides in the areas they work in, but the evidence to back such figures isn't airtight.

Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project examined the effectiveness of CeaseFire in a four-part series in 2008. Siska called into question CeaseFire's effectiveness as well as the funding issues they had in their earlier years (a 2007 Chicago Tribune report shed light on what appeared to be a mismanagement of funds). One of Siska's primary points of contention isn't how the funding was managed — it's that funding is centralized through a university, rather than the communities themselves. Putting money into the community, in Siska's estimation, creates jobs, which in turn lowers crime rates. This socioeconomic thinking, though, runs counter to Slutkin's violence-as-a-disease philosophy.

Steve Rhodes, publisher of The Beachwood Reporter and a former police reporter, has also been a vocal detractor of CeaseFire's approach. While Rhodes holds a deep admiration for the work Hardiman and other interrupters do, he too finds himself at odds with Slutkin's diagnosis of violence as a disease, not a social ill.

"The only way you can argue it's a disease is that it's culturally transmitted, the same way abusive behavior is transmitted," Rhodes said. "But it doesn't have anything to do with violence because violence tracks with poverty, and no one ever wants to deal with crime by addressing poverty. That's the one correlation we know, for a fact, exists."

What Slutkin doesn't account for is the role of poverty, of poor schooling, joblessness, and other social factors in high crime areas as at least part of the puzzle for violent behavior.

For Rhodes, CeaseFire is reminiscent of DARE, an organization that also suffered from a failure to approach the comprehensive picture. DARE was bought into by schools and the media alike because, on the surface, it told a tidy, feel-good narrative; it has since be shown to have been, by and large, a fruitless effort that sapped resources and tax dollars that could've been used more effectively.

"You were never allowed to speak ill of DARE, even though study after study showed it didn't work," Rhodes said. "It was a cash cow, and a lot of people profited from it."

The underlying issue that both DARE and CeaseFire fail to grasp, in Rhodes' opinion, is the long-reaching effects of poverty on a society — after all, until recently, thanks to the Occupy movement, discussions of class have been off-limits in mainstream media.

"All of the sudden, income inequality has entered the conversation," Rhodes said. "It's difficult to discuss economics in America because you encounter some ugly truths, that's why when programs like DARE and CeaseFire come along, they're embraced as silver bullets. They're easy to sell to the public, instead of confronting the economic structure."

Hardiman isn't so quick to let excuses trump personal choices when it comes to violence. After all, in good economic times and bad, violent crime still exists. Sometimes even during boom periods.

"People have grown up in tough economic times, but that doesn't mean you have to continue to kill people," Hardiman said. "In 1974, there were thousands of jobs in the Chicagoland area, but still 972 homicides that year. People weren't thinking about getting jobs — their jobs were in the game, selling drugs, going in and out of jail. Last year (the height of the current recession), there were around 450 homicides."

Still, CeaseFire has many supporters in its corner, including The Chicago Community Trust. And while CeaseFire hasn't secured more funding since the release of The Interrupters — as may have been expected — Trust Vice President Ngoan Le is quick to point out that CeaseFire is like every other community organization fighting for limited money in a budget crisis.

"Multiple needs in the communities tend to be greater than what can be met by limited public and private resources," Le said. " Violence prevention is a priority among other priorities, including shelters for the homeless,  emergency food for the hungry and health care for the uninsured.  It is difficult for all community organizations to secure the maximum level of funding they want to provide the level of services needed."

And when it comes to need, CeaseFire has very specific plans in mind. Currently, the organization is earmarked to receive $4.8 million in funds from the state of Illinois. Hardiman predicts a need of $18-$20 million in order to hire 300 more outreach workers and 100 violence interrupters. They also hope to increase their outreach programs — CeaseFire works directly with at-risk individuals, helping to remove them from their violent surroundings. Just this past year, the organization referred 357 people to employment services, and 211 to education services.

With their current budget, CeaseFire is able to work in 38 Chicago Police Department beats; they'd like to be in 110. The notoriety the film has brought has helped — when Hardiman confronted the elder gang member, being recognized as a member of CeaseFire helped saved his life — but what the organization needs to get over the hump is more funding.

"The battle continues to get more funding at a higher level," Hardiman sad. "Our goal is to get homicides to under 200 in Chicago."


Michael Moreci is a freelance writer and graphic novelist living in Chicago.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Kartemquin / December 13, 2011 11:41 AM

You can see Tio and "The Interrupters" this week in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center:

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