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“Stop the Violence”: Can Community Groups Replace Police Without Supporting the Police?

Anti-violence initiatives face hard decisions about how to align themselves in relation to the state and the police.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout; Adapted: gborn2013; James Malone)

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This past August, community activists gathered in Brooklyn to mark the 2nd annual National Day of Nonviolence. Cities across the country held similar events. From the middle of East New York’s Linden Park, dozens of people marched to the surrounding housing projects chanting “stop the violence” before meeting back in the park to discuss solutions for a neighborhood where shootings persist. A 55-year-old man was shot and killed in the early hours before the march just a few blocks away. Two days before that, two people were shot in the nearby Linden Houses.

East New York was where an unarmed Akai Gurley was fatally shot by a rookie cop two years ago. Amid a conversation about race and policing in America, this is one neighborhood where, despite low overall city crime, violence is a hot topic. Meanwhile, the growing community-based movements that work to curb violence are often ignored or criticized. Cynical “Black-on-Black crime” tropes from the right, which rationalize aggressive policing and have now claimed the White House, rarely acknowledge this type of work. Conversely, the anti-police-brutality movement is often skeptical of a “stop the violence” message, which may sometimes appear more aligned with the respectability politics of Black conservatism.

Wedged between these two worlds, residents and former gang members push the fairly radical idea that the communities can tackle violence on their own terms. Part of the power of police lies in the idea that cops are the courageous protectors of public safety — and that no one else can fill that role. Community-based violence reduction work questions that formula. It also resonates with residents of high-crime communities of color, many of whom are skeptical of police but want alternatives.

So who’ll “stop the violence”? Though the simple act of asking people to “stop” may not keep a bullet in its chamber, there are strategies behind the slogans. Behind those strategies are groups with a wide-ranging set of motivations and politics.

Seeking Self-Determination and Dealing With the Police

Aquil Basheer is a former Black Panther and one of the most well-known antiviolence organizers in the country. He spent decades working to end gang violence in Los Angeles, where he worked with A Better LA, an organization founded by former USC football coach Pete Carroll (now with the Seattle Seahawks). Basheer’s violence-intervention training organization, Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (P.C.I.T.I.), trains people across the US in de-escalation strategies. Part of his early motivation, he says, was to lessen the community’s reliance on police and reduce interactions with cops. Antiviolence work, he explains, can’t be just about stopping violence. The ultimate goal is to have the people take control of their neighborhood and achieve self-determination.

“If we do not empower the people in the community to become the leaders,” Basheer says, “the process is a failure.” That process can take many years. However, it has the potential to create multifaceted community-based safety systems that are more than just extinguishers of a wildfire, both strengthening conflict intervention and addressing the factors that contribute to violence in the first place.

Noting the dangers of having the movement turn into a nonprofit hustle, Basheer contends that the hard work of talking to a gang member or squashing a beef “cannot be driven solely by an economic return.” Groups shouldn’t simply work toward city contracts, he says. There is also a difference, he adds, between street-based interventionists “validated by the community” and practitioners who use “hypotenuses” to try to stop a shooting.

As antiviolence work grows in popularity, with increased funding and heightened media coverage, the movement isn’t uniform and has its issues. For starters, money can be crucial for shoring up resources and compensating people for their labor, but it also complicates the goals of an organization and can come with direct and indirect strings attached. If antiviolence groups are dependent on municipal funding, parameters can be tighter, with little to no hope of establishing decision-making power that’s based in the community. That sort of power is usually concentrated at the top and at the discretion of elected officials, the majority of whom will be swayed by academics and elites — and will be deferential to police.

In fact, even with self-determination as a guiding principle, politics and cops seem to be, for the moment, inescapable parts of the equation. When, where and if the police figure into antiviolence work is crucial to understanding it not only at the street level, where most groups publicly distance themselves from police for fear of losing credibility, but also at the decision-making level. In 2009, Basheer was on one side of a battle over how Los Angeles was going to implement a city-sponsored training academy for gang interventionists. The Advancement Project, an organization with closer ties to the city and the LAPD, ultimately won the contract.

While Basheer concedes that police are an inevitable part of the landscape, he values his autonomy. “We’re not your damn snitches,” he declares. Violence interventionists “secure situations so [police] don’t come in and crack heads.” The ability to do that, he points out, can depend on how long a group has been in the community. Established groups who’ve been around for a while, “you’ll find have more control on the ground.” Newer groups, however, “may be forced to work with police.”

As the idea of violence intervention is, again, at least nominally radical — in the sense that responsibilities usually reserved for cops could become the work of the community — there is also a fear that this can actually deputize community members. A sort of flip side to “community policing,” where cops are supposedly more community-oriented, is a situation in which the community becomes more policing-oriented. Police and some groups of interventionists already share an analysis that violence is the result of a handful of actors, prompting a need for a so-called “focused deterrence” strategy that keys in on them. Violence intervention, with a focus on stopping future and retaliatory violence, can mimic police work when it predicts a shooting.

The “Cure Violence” Model in New York City

New York City, with the nation’s largest police force, is a relative newcomer to formal, funded violence-interruption initiatives. Starting with the fact that New York doesn’t have the gang presence of other cities, like Los Angeles, the influence of the NYPD might also explain the city’s reluctance to meaningfully fund interventionists until 2014 when the city dedicated $12.7 million to “Cure Violence,” a violence-intervention model, tripling the number of sites across the city. Up until then, the program was mostly funded through a $4 million allocation by the state legislature in 2009 (later reduced).

Originally tabbed “Operation SNUG” (Guns spelled backwards), Cure Violence enjoyed muted acceptance, if not praise, early on. It wasn’t until 2014 that politicians and law enforcement jumped on the antiviolence bandwagon. The new funding was applauded by every city district attorney and given the blessings of NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton. Bratton, who’d been LAPD chief as violence intervention work was coming to a head in LA before the 2009 political rift, was pushing his new brand of “collaborative” policing. Two months after a massive police “gang” raid in West Harlem, a modest gesture ($12.7 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the NYPD budget) for violence interrupters fit the collaboration narrative quite neatly.

Bratton’s time in Los Angeles and his penchant for working with academics, like avid Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who developed a similar model in Boston, may have opened the door for the embrace of violence interrupters. After all, Cure Violence is only a piece of a broader strategy that doesn’t preclude policing. Cops have their role. In fact, when announcing the Cure Violence expansion, the NYPD described efforts like Operation Crew Cut, a police tactic that surveils, tracks and leads to raids that target alleged “gang” and “crew” members, as part of the overall approach. “Law enforcement wants to dictate terms,” Basheer warns.

Charlie Ransford, Senior Director of Science and Policy for Cure Violence, contends that this is not the case for Cure Violence groups. “Our sites do not have any formal relationship with the police,” he says. “Informally, we seek to let police know what our workers do so that the police will let them do their work. The site supervisor and some of the workers will know the police in the area and will sometimes introduce themselves and describe the work that we do in the community. At times a site supervisor or other worker will go to a police meeting to talk about our work. For some sites, a community police officer will sit on a hiring panel to help us decide who we hire, to ensure that they are not still involved in criminal activity.”

New York’s turn to Cure Violence in 2014 sparked a wave of favorable local media coverage, but the antiviolence model’s popularity was already growing after the 2011 documentary, The Interrupters, which touted its success in Chicago. Back then, the program was known as CeaseFire, the brainchild of the University of Illinois’s Dr. Gary Slutkin, a former epidemiologist. Slutkin’s approach hinged on the idea that shootings and violence could be treated as a public health problem, like other communicable diseases. According to Slutkin, now the Cure Violence CEO, since shootings and murders spread like other diseases (think tuberculosis), it is possible to “cure” violence. His work in Africa treating the AIDS epidemic, he says, motivated that approach. While there is no known cure for AIDS, the turn toward thinking of violence as a public health concern seemed hip, new and even downright progressive.

Criticisms of “Cure Violence”

Cure Violence, however, has been criticized for channeling funds to academics and university-based workers, as opposed to the community itself. If you’re prone to believe that poverty is the underlying root cause of violence in high-crime neighborhoods, Slutkin’s model seems to dance around that. Despite attempts to couple intervention work with some resources (resume writing workshops, counseling, etc.), the Slutkin model generally seeks changes in behaviors, not economics. During a TED Talk, Slutkin described a potential precursor to violence as “someone who’s very angry because someone looked at his girlfriend or owes him money,” as if to say that violence is a product of emotional choice. Such a concerted focus on behaviors can sometimes mean ignoring key social factors. As violence is seen as “clustering” in certain neighborhoods, like a disease, there is little if any recognition of segregation as a contributing factor, for example.

Critics have even compared Cure Violence to the once-popular D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program that eventually fell out of favor after government reports discredited its effectiveness. There are similar questions over how pronounced or sustainable Cure Violence’s violence reduction claims are. Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project has questioned the model’s academic findings and points out that models that only engage “with the surface issues and not the root causes” will only have a “limited effect.”

Yet Cure Violence has gained increasing fame and praise in mainstream circles. It has been featured in The Economist, in best-selling books and even on the front page of The New York Times Magazine. Cure Violence has spread from Chicago, where Slutkin was based (and where notable increases in violence have occurred), to other urban cities like Baltimore and New Orleans. New Orleans recently handed control of its citywide violence-reduction initiative, “NOLA for Life,” to a retired criminal court judge. It is precisely that sort of involvement of law enforcement that lead many to question whether Cure Violence, and models like it, will be forever tethered to the criminal justice system or if it can make it less relevant. It’d be hard to imagine doing both.

Politically, Cure Violence also raises questions about western influence and control abroad. The program has created partnerships and working sites in 13 countries, including Honduras, Kenya, Guatemala, South Africa and Colombia. There was a five-year Cure Violence program in Iraq from 2008 to 2013, just as the American occupation of the country was supposedly winding down. In other words, for US power brokers, domestic street violence and instability wrought by military invasions share the same solution. Currently, Cure Violence is in Syria, working with the American Islamic Congress and FREE Syria, two US-based nonprofits, on a program funded by the European Union. Among Cure Violence’s funders and supporters are the World Bank and USAID.

These strange crosscurrents of money and geopolitics point to a movement that’d seem to be anything but community-based.

Community-Based Initiatives That Eschew Collaboration With Police

Not all community-based antiviolence initiatives are tied to state funding and state control. In fact, some are firmly opposed to policing, surveillance and imprisonment. Tasha Amezcua is a coordinator for Safe Outside the System (SOS), a Brooklyn-based antiviolence collective whose members are primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans and gender nonconforming New Yorkers of color. SOS, a program of the Audre Lorde Project, is decidedly critical of cops and was founded partly as a response to the police violence and harassment that was a hallmark of New York in the 1990s under Rudy Giuliani’s “Quality of Life” regime. Amezcua notes SOS’s commitment to transformative justice, which eschews police collaboration and city violence-reduction funding. Instead, it focuses on the creation of “Safe Spaces” where violence can be deterred without law enforcement.

Amezcua points out that SOS usually doesn’t work around gang or gun violence (in fact, the anti-LGBTQ violence SOS focuses on is often ignored by mainstream groups), so it doesn’t parallel programs like Cure Violence. Still, it is useful to note the striking political differences between the groups. Outright criticism of the police is not something you’ll find easily within groups that receive city funding. One violence-interruption worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job told me that language that sharply criticizes police is frowned upon. While there’s no formal directive against being too “anti-police,” it is implied, they said. Contracts have to be renewed. Funding is often conditional.

Another community-based group is Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), a Chicago organization that fights violence by being present in the community. Made up of mostly moms, but some fathers too, MASK members, often in their bright pink shirts, hit the streets and engage with young people, sometimes giving out food and hugs. “The vast majority of these guys aren’t doing nothing wrong — nothing illegal, nothing immoral, they’re just hanging out,” one member told In These Times last year. “But they have to suffer because of the perception that everybody out here is on some B.S.” MASK’s presence also helps keep police at bay, the group’s founder, Tamar Manasseh, says. “It’s still very much Alabama in the 1960s,” she told In These Times. “It’s very much an overseer, sharecropper kind of deal out here. The police have no vested interest in this community. They don’t live here; they don’t have parents that live here, or nieces and nephews. They don’t care.”

The Need for Antiviolence Infrastructure in Communities of Color

Back in Brooklyn, the Crown Heights-based Save Our Streets (often confused with Amezcua’s SOS) runs two out of the three original Cure Violence sites in Brooklyn, including a site in Bed-Stuy. Man Up!, a community-based organization in East New York, runs the other. Founded over a decade ago, the group has interrupted violence by working to squash feuds and de-escalate violence before it starts. For nearly two years, a stretch of the neighborhood where the organization works in has gone without a fatal shooting — bucking a violent trend in East New York. Man Up! also provides job training, day care services and a youth-run cafe.

Save Our Streets, Man Up! and other antiviolence groups around the city working to make their neighborhoods safer enjoy a substantial amount of support from the community. During the “stop the violence” march in Linden Park this past August, Sharon, a 48-year-old mother of three, instantly named Man Up! as a group that was making strides against violence in the neighborhood. “As far as the cops go, I don’t hate them but I don’t trust them,” she told me. “But you know, when people out here shooting, who do you call? I like seeing groups out here talking to these kids. I wish they was around before my kids grew up.” Two of her oldest children have served time in prison and she worries for her youngest, a 15-year-old student.

The popularity of antiviolence groups among residents like Sharon is undeniable. Even as police brutality videos have dominated headlines as of late, there is frustration that the focus on cops doesn’t go past a few demonstrations. “We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t have structures and a framework for the future of the community,” Basheer says. While protests and marches against the police are legitimate and necessary, he thinks they don’t go far enough. “You might get them pumped up in the moment, but then what?” The goal of a movement that strives to stop violence, without police, is “to create infrastructure so that community, as it stops the bloodshed, can have alternatives.” You can’t have that, he says, unless people are creating better solutions to real violence.

“What You Think They Gon’ Do?”

Despite a massive police presence at this year’s J’Ouvert celebration in Brooklyn, an annual street party held the night before the West Indian Day parade, gunshots rang out. Although the NYPD unveiled a massive “security plan” to try to prevent violence after an aide to the governor was killed at the festival last year, the results were in fact worse. Police installed cameras, erected towers, set up the new ShotSpotter gunshot-detection system and poured hundreds of officers into the streets. It was all for naught as four people were injured and two were killed by gunshots that night.

Even beyond all the anti-Black violence they’ve perpetrated themselves, the police aren’t the solutions to violence that they’re framed to be. If Cure Violence includes gang suppression tactics, like raids and conspiracy indictments, then it too may be fundamentally flawed. To be clear, this is not an indictment of the various groups doing the work on the ground. Efforts evolve and can intermingle. Amezcua, for example, recently mentioned potential plans to work with Save Our Streets. However, there seems to be an inherent contradiction within models that asks us to treat violence like a disease but still allows for extremely heavy-handed policing. There is also the problem of ignoring the most important piece of the puzzle: poverty.

During the Chicago premier for the film Chiraq last year, director Spike Lee was confronted by Chicago-born activist and Dream Defenders organizer Umi Selah. The film portrayed Chicago as a city so rife with violence that some had come to compare it with Iraq (again, a place where Cure Violence has popped up). Selah’s scathing critique, delivered to Lee in person, was symbolic of the uneasy tension between the city-funded “stop the violence” movement and some social justice activists.

“You’re creating a film here that places the entirety of the blame and the situation and the plight that’s going on in Chicago on the people of Chicago,” Selah belted out. “How many lives you gon’ save without creating jobs for those people in Chicago? You not telling nobody the truth about what’s going on in Chicago and around this country … there is an experiment that if you put mice on top of each other, they’re going to steal, kill and destroy each other, brother. So if you put a bunch of people in projects all over this country, what you think they gon’ do?”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the work of Cure Violence, including the addition of a quote from Charlie Ransford, the organization’s senior director of science and policy.

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