The Interrupters: Stopping the Contagion of Violence

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Courtesy Kartemquin Films

Cobe Williams, a "violence interrupter" with the CeaseFire program in Chicago

Is violence a virus? The literal answer is no, but the metaphor offers important insight into stopping the epidemic.

It’s what fuels the CeaseFire program in Chicago, which employs former gang members in the city’s poor neighborhoods as “violence interrupters.” Their job is to mediate disputes between gangs and prevent retaliatory killings. The program has been found to directly reduce shootings by 16% to 34% in targeted neighborhoods.

CeaseFire is now the subject of a brilliant new documentary, The Interrupters, a collaboration between director Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams) and journalist Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here). It premiered at Sundance and has received virtually unanimous acclaim.

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Cobe Williams, 38, is one of the program’s interrupters, followed in the film and recently promoted to national community coordinator. Kotlowitz describes Williams, a former drug dealer who served time for attempted murder, as an “affable teddy-bear-like guy who makes people laugh.”

“All my life, I knew right from wrong, but my father was in a gang, selling drugs, having fancy cars like Cadillacs,” says Williams. “As a kid, he was my role model. I wanted to be like my daddy. We looked up to the money-getters.”

When Williams was three, his father was convicted of murder and sent to prison. Williams recalls visiting his dad and being impressed by his friends, their gang signs and camaraderie.

When Williams was 11, his father became the victim of a gang-related killing, and that only escalated his own involvement in violence. It wasn’t until he was incarcerated himself that he first heard about CeaseFire, Williams says. “I’d seen them doing marches and I thought, ‘Man, this is crazy, a mother or grandmother can’t sit on the porch, kids can’t play outside.’ I gotta get out there and make a difference. I gotta be a man and raise my son,” he says.

Williams started as a volunteer, until “CeaseFire hired me and I took off running.” In the film, you watch him using his considerable charm and charisma to cajole, wheedle and sometimes beg young men heading down the path of violence to change.

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That’s where the idea of violence as a disease comes in. “It’s a learned behavior,” Williams says. “I learned it from seeing my big brothers and uncles, and once I learned it, it spread like a disease. My little cousins learned it from me; my other cousins learned it from them, so it’s spread and spread.”

“That’s why we as outreach workers, we’re the cures,” he adds. “We interrupt transmission and change the norms and make them think, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this. We shouldn’t be about this.'”

Chicago’s CeaseFire — not to be confused with the program originating in Boston with the same name — was founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health in 1995.

Slutkin, who had worked to curb tuberculosis in San Francisco and cholera in Somalia, realized that fighting violence was similar to fighting infectious disease: in order to stop infections from spreading, the most “contagious” people had to be reached.

That meant hiring people with serious criminal histories, people who had not yet distanced themselves from their pasts. If they were too far removed and no longer in touch with life on the streets, they would be of little help.

Of course, there’s also always the risk that rather than inspiring gangsters to reform, the peer pressure from reformed criminals will push them in the wrong direction. “I had same question going in,” says Kotlowitz, who first wrote about CeaseFire in a 2008 feature for the New York Times Magazine. “It’s one of things that amazes me, a lot of the guys have been there since then. Part of [why it works] is that they’ve got a solid enough group that if someone begins to wander, there would be pressure to leave rather than bring down everyone else.”

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CeaseFire does intensive background checks and drug tests its employees. They tend to stay on the straight and narrow: simply having a job, especially one that offers such a chance for redemption and meaning, is intensely motivating, even when the job itself — trying to change behavior to reduce violence — seems like a Sisyphean task.

“You have to let them know that they’re loved, you can’t give up on them,” Williams says of the men he works with on the street. “Sometimes I take kids to the movies, to football games. Some of these kids have not even been off of the block they live on. They need a father figure. If you show them you care, it can make a big difference. But I ain’t gonna say it turns over night. You gotta brace yourself to be patient.”

Another reason it helps to view violence as a disease rather than a crime is that it helps reduce the judgmental aspect of intervention. “They ain’t bad people. They made bad choices,” says Williams. “You gotta remember, I was them. I lived how they lived. We don’t judge nobody.”

That doesn’t mean that CeaseFire’s members don’t believe in punishment for serious crimes, however. “You look at someone like Eddie [another interrupter in the film],” says Kotlowitz. “He killed someone when he was 18. He’d be the first to say that it’s inexcusable. He’s trying to find way to forgive himself. The reason why he’s doing the work he’s doing is really for redemption, trying to find way to make up for what he did.”

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CeaseFire has been the subject of several studies, which have found positive results. “The Department of Justice has evaluated it and found that its effective,” says James Marks, director of the health group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has supported CeaseFire since 1999 with $10 million in funding.

It has also been the subject of what researchers call a “natural experiment.” When funding was cut from one neighborhood, says Marks, shootings went back up, but when it was restored, the trend reversed again. “Obviously, that’s not an experiment we would choose to do,” says Marks.

CeaseFire is now working with organizations in nearly a dozen cities including New York, Baltimore, New Orleans and Kansas City to replicate the project and expand its reach.

“I ended up last year doing 50 mediations,” says Williams. “I was so happy. We stopped so many people getting hurt and killed.”

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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