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In Chicago, talking sense to angry young men with guns

Antiviolence program employs ex-gang members to help curb street violence, with some success.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2008

Job Hunt: Marnell Brown (r.) with young client Tyrone Lockett.

Richard Mertens

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Marnell Brown's phone rang an hour before midnight. A 17-year-old youth had been shot and killed not far from his office in West Garfield Park, one of Chicago's poorest and most violent neighborhoods. Some of the teen's friends were gathered a few blocks away, the caller said. They wanted to strike back.

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Mr. Brown went to stop them. "So far we have a casualty, one lost," he remembers telling them. "You're willing to go to war? You'll lose more. And what about civilians? Are you prepared for that – friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters? You may hit your target. But when they come to retaliate, they ... might hit your mother or sister."

As cities struggle to curb gun violence, more of them are turning to people like Marnell Brown. A former gang member who spent much of his adulthood in prison, Brown works on some of Chicago's most ruthless streets, steering young men away from violence and toward jobs, schools, drug treatment, and more stable lives. At times he and his colleagues try to restrain agitated, angry, and often drug-addled youths from the kind of retaliatory violence that characterizes much gang conflict.

"You have a lot of guys in a pretty bad condition, guys going through emotional stuff," he says. "They don't know how to handle it."

Gun violence, especially involving gangs, continues to baffle many cities. Gang-related killings soared from the 1970s until the mid-1990s and has remained high ever since. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the leading cause of death among African-Americans ages 10 to 24.

"A lot of communities are really trying to do something about it, but they don't know what to do," says Jeremy Wilson, a researcher at the RAND Corp.'s Center for Quality Policing who has studied antiviolence efforts in Pittsburgh and other cities.

Tougher policing has been one answer. In Chicago, the police recently announced new measures to cope with a spring upsurge in shootings, such as equipping officers with powerful rifles and sending them in SWAT-like gear into troublesome neighborhoods.

Increasingly, however, cities are looking for strategies that go beyond law enforcement and strike at the causes of gun violence. These strategies typically involve helping communities resist violence from within and weaning young men from reliance on gangs. In Los Angeles, a city that has been struggling with gang warfare for decades, officials have been trying to broaden their approach after a 2006 study found numerous shortcomings in previous antigang efforts, including an overreliance on policing.