The Great Chicago Ceasefire

My beloved city of Chicago has achieved a regrettable status the last few years: The Murder Capital of the United States. Since last Friday, Jennifer Hudson and her family have publicly live out the painfully tragic death of her mother, sister, and nephew. It’s a painful reminder of what so many Chicago families have experienced. We are left asking, “How doe we solve the problem of violence?” Traditional methods of preventing violence involve coercive punishment such as life imprisonment and the death penalty. In Chicago, those traditional methods of fighting violence with punishment are failing. Maybe the traditional approach needs to be altered.  Maybe we need a more creative approach to solving violence. Maybe the answer to the problem is not with threats of coercion, but a transformation of our culture. Maybe we need a CeaseFire. Which is exactly what Dr. Gary Slutkin has done. Dr. Slutkin is a medical doctor who has studied and fought infectious diseases of the body.  He is now working on fighting another infectious disease: Violence. Dr. Slutkin has formed a program called CeaseFire. The program works with former gang members to “unlearn” the ways of violence and teach people a better way of responding to insult and injury. Dr. Slutkin believes that violence is a behavioral disease that can be cured. “Violence is a behavior, and our attention to it requires a different strategy.” The societal pressure aimed at being violent must be transformed to a societal pressure aimed at reconciliation. Behavior, Slutkin states, is based on expectation, not punishment. If we use coercion to end violence, we are only reinforcing the expectation of violence to solve problems. Thus, what we consider to be “good violence” only reinforces violence as a means to achieve a goal. Dr. Slutkin points us in a better direction. The key to CeaseFire is that it trains credible members of a community to influence others to stop being violent and to seek a better way to respond to perceived aggression. “Credible members” include former gang members, who are now changing the expectations within their culture by going to the source of the violent contagion, the people most infected by the disease of violence. As former gang members, they know better than anyone else where to find that source, and with the training of CeaseFire, they know how to negotiate a peaceful solution to violent situations. The first year CeaseFire was implemented in the second most violent neighborhood in Chicago, shootings dropped by 67 percent. The program works. But there is a problem. Since the State of Illinois cut funding for CeaseFire, shootings in Chicago have increased. Other social programs aimed at alleviating the causes of violence (lack of positive mentors, poverty, poor education, poor housing, poor decision making skills) are also being cut. Until we fund practical solutions to violence, such as CeaseFire, we will continue to be plagued by violence. Violence is a disease that we have learned. It infects every aspect of our culture, from politics to video games. The hope, as Dr. Slutkin reminds us, is that we can unlearn violence and be taught a better way. We know it’s possible. We know it’s effective. But do we have the courage to implement Dr. Slutkin’s methods? Or are we trapped in traditional, counterproductive, and coercive strategies of reducing violence?

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