Curbing Chicago crime, one jigsaw cut at a time
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When Shawn’s best friend was killed walking down the street, the shooting received only passing mention in the newspapers. The death of another young Black man intruded only briefly upon the consciousness of a city where such crime was becoming more common.
But for Shawn, the killing was both a wrenching loss and a moment of piercing clarity. “If it could happen to him,” he thought, “it could happen to me.”
Why We Wrote This
As grassroots groups look for new ways to prevent crime, they are focusing not only on at-risk individuals but increasingly on entire neighborhoods.
In recent years, Shawn has been getting help at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a small Roman Catholic-run organization that cooperates with other groups to provide services to the neighborhood. He’s found refuge there, as well as encouragement, friendship, educational opportunity, and job training. It’s not all gone well, but it’s helped him, so far, avoid the worst.
Founded by the Rev. David Kelly, Precious Blood embraces the principles of “radical hospitality” and “relentless engagement.” The organization’s specialty is restorative justice. The aim is to strengthen relationships and resolve conflicts by encouraging understanding and trust. Shawn has attended “peace circles” where he and other young men from the neighborhood share their thoughts and feelings. “It was relaxing,” he says.
The streets still feel dangerous to Shawn. But back at Precious Blood, he works the printing machine. Asked what he wants for his future, he answers without hesitation.
“I hope I’m here to tell the story.”
Shawn was at home, scrounging for change, when he heard the sudden crack of gunshots. Outside, he found a young man lying on the sidewalk, surrounded by neighbors. It was his best friend, Brandon. They lived just a block apart and often spent the night at each other’s houses. They sometimes went out together to buy loose cigarettes, hitting up passersby for quarters.
Now Brandon, not yet out of high school, lay on the ground, bleeding and unresponsive. A man knelt and held his head. It was a gusty December afternoon, mild for the season. The others glanced up at Shawn. But he hung back and said little. He remembers that his friend’s eyes were closed. He would not see them open again.
“I ain’t never really seen anything like that,” he says, his voice sinking almost to a whisper. He adds, “I couldn’t even cry. It took me until the next day.”
Why We Wrote This
As grassroots groups look for new ways to prevent crime, they are focusing not only on at-risk individuals but increasingly on entire neighborhoods.
The Chicago police later said that Brandon McKnight had been walking down 66th Street when two men ran up from behind and shot him. He died that night in a local public hospital. It was one of many shootings in Chicago that week, and it received only passing mention in the newspapers. The death of another young Black man intruded only briefly upon the consciousness of a city where such crime was becoming more common. It was soon forgotten.
But not by Shawn. The hurt of that day still gnaws at him, the details of the killing still fresh in his mind. The killing was both a wrenching loss and a moment of piercing clarity. It took his best friend, but it also reminded him of the precariousness of his own life. “If it could happen to him,” he thought, “it could happen to me.”
Gun violence is surging in the United States. After decades of decline, the murder rate is nearing record levels in many American cities. In Chicago, there were 943 homicides in 1992. By 2013 the number had dropped to 415. But by last year it had risen back to 797, the most in 25 years. Some cities, like Philadelphia, are seeing more murders than ever.
What’s happening? No one knows for sure. Law enforcement officials and experts on violence say possible causes include the strain and disruptions of the coronavirus, the civil unrest of recent years, and a police backlash to the “defund the police” movement. Some also point to more systemic problems, including persistent segregation, growing inequality, and long festering issues in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, among them a deep distrust of the police.
“This isn’t a new problem for our cities,” said Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, speaking in a recent panel discussion with violence prevention experts in Chicago. “This has been happening for decades. I think what’s happening in the last two years is that we’ve thrown gasoline on an already raging fire.”
Rising crime – not just murders but also carjackings and “smash and grab” assaults on local businesses – has alarmed residents of Chicago and other American cities and emerged as a major political issue only months before midterm elections. Officials are looking for ways to get tough on it. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed that the city confiscate the property of gang members. In March, New York City Mayor Eric Adams revived a controversial anti-gun police unit that had been disbanded in 2020 amid criticism that it was overly aggressive and contributed to a disproportionate number of police shootings.
But that’s not the whole story. There’s also a growing movement to fight gun violence through community efforts that strengthen neighborhoods, families, and individuals most caught up in it. Led by nonprofit groups, increasingly in cooperation with local governments, these efforts include reaching out to young people most at risk of shooting or getting shot, organizing activities to build trust within afflicted neighborhoods, and promoting norms of nonviolence. They even include mowing vacant lots to make streets feel safer.
“There’s a whole garden of approaches, with different styles and modalities and theories of change,” says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “What’s new, or seems new, is that we’ve reached the point that relying on law enforcement for all of our public safety problems became too obviously problematic.”
Indeed, this community-based approach springs from a conviction among researchers, neighborhood leaders, and others that curbing violence cannot be left to police alone, but needs more effort to address its causes. It means helping neighborhoods not only wracked by violence but also fractured by poverty and neglect, with underperforming schools, poor housing, too few jobs, and inadequate health care. It means helping young men who have grown up where violence is the currency of the streets, where retaliation is the law, and where threats, taunts, and slights, often amplified by social media, can lead quickly to confrontation.
Support for these efforts is growing. In Chicago, for example, the city coordinates the work of dozens of organizations in an expanding network called Communities Partnering 4 Peace, formed in 2016. Last December, Illinois appropriated $250 million over three years for anti-violence programs, a month after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared gun violence a public health crisis. Meanwhile, Build Back Better, President Joe Biden’s social spending plan, includes $5 billion for community intervention nationwide.
The most popular anti-violence programs, and the best funded, focus on at-risk youth. In recent years, Shawn has been involved in one such effort in Back of the Yards, a mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhood that borders the once sprawling expanse of the Chicago stockyards. It’s where his friend died, in 2015, as gun violence began to rise in the city.
Shawn isn’t his real name. It’s a nickname he gives when the police stop him, he says. “When they dig a little deeper, they’ll find my real name,” he adds, smiling faintly. He doesn’t want to use his real name because he’s worried about rival groups and the risk of calling attention to himself.
The place where Shawn has been getting help is called Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. It’s a small Roman Catholic-run organization that cooperates with other groups to provide services to the neighborhood. He’s found refuge there, as well as encouragement, friendship, educational opportunity, and job training. It’s not all gone well, but it’s helped him, so far, avoid the worst.
Precious Blood occupies second-floor offices at a public school on Chicago’s Near South Side. It is a welcoming place, as much community center as office space. People come and go all day, ducking into a warren of cubicles or, more often, meeting acquaintances in the big, sunny common room just off the main hallway.
Precious Blood embraces the principle of “radical hospitality.” That means extending a welcome to everyone, especially those whom other institutions – schools, families, the justice system – have failed. “People come because there’s no one else to turn to,” says the Rev. David Kelly, founder and executive director.
It’s not easy. Precious Blood strives for what Mr. Kelly calls “relentless engagement.” Many participants are grappling with mental illness; for them, simply getting the medications they need is a struggle. The people at Precious Blood try to stick with them. When young men drift away from the program, as they often do, they are welcomed back. Mr. Kelly describes one young man he has just spoken with that morning, a regular at the center who nonetheless is in and out of trouble and talked to him from a juvenile detention center.
“A lot of people might say you ain’t doing much good,” he admits. “I can understand that. But coming to the center, at least he’s doing that. He’s on that path.” He adds, “We never give up on anyone.”
Mr. Kelly, who grew up in Ohio, started the program in 2002 after a long career working with young people in the juvenile justice system. He saw that the system did little to address the deeper problems facing these youths and their families. “The criminal justice system isn’t about healing our communities, only punishing them,” he says. He says the causes of violence haven’t been addressed.
“It’s complicated,” he says. “People want to know, ‘What’s the issue?’ There isn’t one issue. It’s compound issues. And when you compound them, things break down.”
Precious Blood addresses this breakdown in ways big and small. It shows movies in parks, organizes free-haircut events, sets up food trucks, and helps poor families find housing or pay for utilities. It hosts meetings for mothers who have children in prison or have lost them to violence. It arranges mental health care for young men in its program – or helps them buy gas or find a place to live. It involves them in community service, such as raking leaves. It offers job training.
Shay Knox is head of outreach at Precious Blood. She’s employed by another Chicago organization, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, and is an example of how local groups collaborate with each other. Ms. Shay lives in the neighborhood and became involved with young people after a friend lost a son to a shooting. “A lot of them I’ve known since they were little kids, and I know their parents,” she says. She doesn’t just recruit them. She looks after them in all sorts of ways, driving them to job interviews or court appearances, handing out donated coats and hats – or mediating disputes. Most importantly, she says, “We try to give them a place where they can relax and be themselves. And we listen.”
Precious Blood’s specialty is restorative justice. The aim is to strengthen relationships and resolve conflicts by encouraging understanding and trust. Precious Blood organizes “peace circles” in which participants sit across from each other in a big, high-ceilinged room, choose from a collection of “talking pieces,” and share their thoughts and feelings. Shawn has attended circles with other young men from the neighborhood. “It was relaxing,” he says. They especially liked the food at the end.
Anti-violence programs often differ in philosophy and emphasis, but most follow the same basic strategy. Outreach workers identify and befriend at-risk youth. Once in, participants receive counseling and other help to address lingering trauma from witnessing shootings, losing family or friends, or being shot at themselves.
Case managers offer mentoring and “life coaching” to guide them through adversity. Many participants have dropped out of high school, and so educational programming gives them an opportunity to earn a diploma. Finally, workforce development programs teach them skills and help them find jobs. Often participants receive stipends as an incentive to keep them coming back and to give them a boost toward self-reliance.
Does it work? There’s evidence that it does. Researchers have found that participants in these programs are less likely to be involved in shootings. But an approach that focuses on individuals is expensive and limited in scope: It can reach only a small number of people.
“They’re seeing gains,” says Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at Northwestern University and director of the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative. “But it’s hard to say it’s bringing violence down. It’s not affecting the overall rate of violence.”
For this reason, some researchers argue that violence prevention needs to focus more on improving communities than on saving individuals. “People understand violence as an individual problem,” says Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. “They think if we just reach a person early enough we can stop that violence. We understand it as a community problem. ... You have to deal with the community problem before more people get exposed.”
One example can be found in Flint, Michigan, where the Genesee County Land Bank has been organizing local efforts to maintain vacant lots. Like many Rust Belt cities, Flint has them in abundance, a consequence of industrial decline and population loss. They often grow weedy and trash-filled, giving neighborhoods a derelict look and making them susceptible to crime.
Started in 2004, the Land Bank’s program, called Clean and Green, maintains 3,600 lots, contracting with community organizations to do the work. Although some studies suggest that this kind of urban greening can lead to gentrification, people in Flint say it’s made streets look more inviting and feel safer. Research from the University of Michigan’s Youth Violence Prevention Center says it’s reduced violent crime by 40%.
“I think the work we’re doing is brightening up the neighborhood,” says the Rev. Lamarr Griggs, pastor of Flint’s Second Chance Ministries Deliverance Church. For a decade the church has recruited parishioners and local youth to pick up litter and mow the grass on 70 lots. Mr. Griggs believes the work has lifted neighborhood spirits and inspired residents to spend more time outside. “I think that’s deterred the crime,” he says.
Advocates like Mr. Branas say place-based efforts like Flint’s also make good economic sense. “It’s inexpensive, and it’s scalable,” he says. “We can do it in a lot of places. I do think there’s a huge opportunity that we’re not taking advantage of.”
For many young men in Chicago, guns and violence are as much a part of growing up as girls and basketball. Shawn’s father was a member of the Black P. Stones, a large Chicago gang, and eventually so was he. Everyone belonged to a group, Shawn says, if only for self-defense. “If you aren’t, people are going to look at you in a certain way,” he says. “Someone’s going to try you.”
Gangs aren’t what they once were, and the changes have made street life more chaotic and unpredictable for young people. Gone are the old hierarchies that could enforce order in neighborhoods, says Ms. Knox of Precious Blood. Killings, arrests, and mass incarceration have swept away older leadership, leaving a loose collection of “cliques.” “Now there’s no one to listen to,” she says.
Shawn won’t say exactly when he began carrying a gun. He says simply, “I was at the age. I was in the gang. I was ready to use it. Everybody had them.” He’s been arrested twice on gun charges. He once spent six months at the Cook County Jail, an experience he is eager not to repeat.
The killing of his friend Brandon was only one of many in his life. Among old friends and acquaintances he counts “10 dead, like 30 in jail.”
“It’s scary ’cause you don’t know when your time comes,” Shawn says, echoing the fatalism of many young men. “It could be your friend who kills you. They know everything about you.”
The killing of friends, along with the early death of his mother, not only taught him a wariness of the streets; it also filled him with rage. “I was mad at everybody,” he says, “taking my anger out on people.”
In this, too, he is far from alone. Living with violence, real and potential, exacts a heavy price on young men. It’s why advocates say treating their psychological wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder, is crucial.
“Outreach has been a thing forever,” says Dorothy Wilson, lead therapist at Chicago CRED, a nonprofit working to reduce gun violence in Chicago. “But mental health has not been part of the picture.”
One of the biggest challenges is offering young men an alternative to gang life without removing them from their neighborhoods. For many of them, the choice is clear, if hard to attain. “The question I get most,” says Mr. Kelly, “is, ‘Can I get a job?’”
On a late fall day, several young men toil in Precious Blood’s workshop, a small brick building across the street from the main offices. A teen named Josh and an older youth named Willy (they didn’t want to give their last names) are in the basement, crafting talking pieces out of plywood. The shapes are cut with a jigsaw and computerized router, sanded by hand, and then finished with shellac. Precious Blood sells them online.
The work is typical of anti-violence programs. The aim is to teach practical skills, such as operating woodworking machinery, but also problem-solving. One project last fall was building a small greenhouse from discarded aluminum pipes. Maybe more important is teaching necessary workplace habits, like showing up on time.
Willy sits at a small table, bent over his work. He sands with deep concentration while earbuds blare religious rap music. “Anytime I go to the wood shop, I get in my head space,” he says.
Like Shawn, Willy has been coming to Precious Blood for several years. “It’s like a second home,” he says. He says he’s been trying since he was a boy to distance himself from gang life.
“When I was young we had mini fights, just seeing who was toughest,” he recalls. And yet, he says, “I’m not really a gangbanger.” He describes that life as “selling drugs, shooting at people, trying to make a name for yourself. You’re either the bully, or you know how to fight.”
Now, he goes on, “I’m really trying to maintain focus, get a job. I like working at the workshop, but [I want] something bigger and better.” He’d like to design video games and has already put some up on YouTube.
Joining an anti-violence program confers no immunity from violence. One day, Willy arrived early and sat on the front stoop, waiting for the shop to open. Suddenly a truck sped past. Bullets flew. But Willy was only grazed, and he didn’t take it personally.
“If you’re in the neighborhood, you’re part of this environment. ... People from another neighborhood who have a beef with our neighborhood, they’ll retaliate. They didn’t know who I was.”
Upstairs, Shawn runs a six-armed machine that sits like a giant spider at one end of the room. It’s used to print customized T-shirts and sweatshirts, which Precious Blood sells to other nonprofits. Today he’s finishing a batch of hoodies for the Precious Blood staff, printing in white ink on black fabric the organization’s acronym – PBMR. Shawn is tall and lean, with long dreadlocks and a scruffy beard. He has plenty of street smarts, and a dry sense of humor that his co-workers enjoy. “You should be at Second City,” one of them jokes, referring to Chicago’s famous improvisation theater. “I know,” Shawn says, grinning. “I should.”
He never finished school. He has tried more than once to continue his education, but it has never worked out. “Every time I try to do it, it gets harder and harder,” he says. “I just lost interest.”
He’s learned printing at Precious Blood and, if nothing else, enjoys the feeling of safety the work gives him. “If it’s not here, I don’t feel comfortable,” he says. He’s still haunted by the killing of Brandon and other friends. The streets still feel dangerous. “That’s my reality now,” he says. “I don’t get into no car, no bus.” When he does go out, he walks fast. Wariness like this is typical. He deleted his Facebook postings, he says, but it was too late. “My face is already out there,” he says.
Then, just before the holidays, Shawn finds evening work at a shipping warehouse. It’s what everyone yearns for: a real job. But in January, he’s back at Precious Blood, working the printing machine. Asked what he wants for his future, he answers without hesitation.
“I hope I’m here to tell the story.”