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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.

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"You've got to stop the flow of young people into gangs in the first place," says Jeff Carr, deputy mayor for gang reduction and youth development in L.A. "If you arrest one guy and there are three waiting to take his place, you're not going to solve the problem."

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One effort that has attracted attention is the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention and its antiviolence campaign, CeaseFire. Based at the University of Illinois's Department of Public Health, CeaseFire treats gun violence as a public health problem and fights it by trying to change individual behavior and community norms. The police "catch people after they cross the line," says Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who started CeaseFire eight years ago. "Our job is to keep them on this side of the line."

Working mainly in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs, CeaseFire promotes nonviolence with such things as leaflets, bumper stickers, and signs announcing how many days have passed since the last shooting. It works with local ministers and other community leaders to organize neighborhood marches, rallies, and vigils after shootings.

Meanwhile, outreach workers recruit and work with a small number of youths deemed most at risk of shooting or getting shot. "Violence interrupters," and sometimes the outreach workers themselves, intervene when violence breaks out, often seeking out a victim's friends and relatives to discourage retaliation.

CeaseFire typically hires ex-gang members who have done prison time, found religion, and joined the campaign to earn a living and give back to their old neighborhoods. It trains them how to resolve conflicts, connect with clients, and stay out of trouble. But their success depends heavily on their insider's knowledge of gang culture and on the credibility they enjoy on the streets.

A slender, personable man of 49, Brown grew up on Chicago's West Side, where he mastered "short cons" like the pigeon drop and three-card monte. He also robbed, beginning with the holdup of a mail carrier when he was 16. He spent almost two decades in prison for a variety of crimes, including armed robbery and aggravated assault. Three years ago, out of prison and working as a drug counselor, he began working for CeaseFire.

Most of Brown's clients are members of local "crews," the small, loosely organized neighborhood gangs that rule Chicago's poor African-American communities. Many have already done jail time. "I have an overwhelming sense of compassion to see guys not go through what I went though," he says.

Brown says violence usually erupts not over drugs, money, or turf but over "just nonsense" – some real or imagined slight, a quarrel over a woman, an old grudge. The victims are often bystanders, including children. Brown tries to get young men to think before they act, often by asking about their families.

"When you talk to people about family, you get in touch with their compassion," he says, and "once the spirit of empathy is aroused, it's hard to miss."

Antiviolence efforts have long been hampered by uncertainty over what really works, experts say. "We have almost no program or policy research on what is effective in addressing the gang problem," says Irving Spergel, a retired University of Chicago professor and an authority on gangs.