On the Street With Violence Interrupters

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a brainstorming session in Chicago to investigate how social mapping tools can be used to create positive social change. As a test case, we talked with CeaseFire Chicago.

To learn more about CeaseFire’s work to prevent gun violence, PopTech caught up with several members of their team who attended the brainstorming session. What follows comes from several conversations that I’ve had with Dr. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of CeaseFire, and CeaseFire Interrupters Timothy White and Eddie Bocanegra.


Gun violence in Chicago. It happens over money or a girlfriend or a neighborhood block. It happens over the smallest and most common of things. Someone steps on someone else’s shoes. Someone looks at someone the wrong way. And once it happens, retaliation is likely.

“They’re angry. And they have a reason to be angry,” Eddie Bocanegra, told me recently. “You know, maybe their closest friend just got shot. Or maybe the individual himself just got shot and he’s sitting in the hospital with a gunshot in his leg, and the only thing in his head is I’m going to go back as soon as I’m able to walk.

“Think about it. For the past two or three years, who knows, probably even longer than that, he’s seen his friends getting shot, and it becomes normal… In his mind it’s like Ok, this is how we live."

And that was exactly what went through Eddie’s mind when his close friend got shot and wound up paralyzed from the waist down. He was angry and ready to act on what he’d learned from the streets. “My intention was to go back and shoot somebody and inflict the same kind of pain that my friend was going through,” he told me.

Eddie Bocanegra describes the past that inspired him to support young men who turn to violence as a coping mechanism for anger. Video shot by our friend, Daniel Stephens.

Like Eddie, Dr. Gary Slutkin grew up in Chicago. But while Eddie spent fourteen years and three months in prison, Gary spent a large part of his career in Africa, working on some of the developing world’s biggest health issues – AIDS, TB, and cholera. When he returned home to Chicago in 1995 Gary focused his attention on an epidemic much closer to home.

“People told me about children shooting other children with guns, and I saw the magnitude of the problem,” he told me last year. “I asked people what they were doing to try to address it, and the things that were being expressed to me didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what we would do, but I knew that what was out there had no chance.”

Gary established a violence prevention approach called CeaseFire. Over time, he says the violence plaguing his hometown began exhibiting to him all the signs of an infectious disease. His work evolved in recognition of this, and today, based on behavior change and health/epidemic control methods, CeaseFire is reducing shootings and violent crime in the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods where it is employed, by an average of 45%.

Part of what makes CeaseFire unique and successful is its use of Violence Interrupters, men and women who have or build a rapport with gang leaders and other at-risk youth, and who intervene in potentially violent situations before anyone pulls a trigger. The Interrupters typically have a background on the streets and have spent time in prison. Ex-offenders usually have an extremely challenging time getting a job after they’re released from prison, yet when Eddie applied to work as Interrupter his background was an asset. Like the other Interrupters, Eddie can read the streets fast, and knows what will or will not work in any given situation.

“Most of the time it’s that anger and the ego…and the friends on the sideline cheering them on telling them ‘go do this, go do that’," he told me. “I might get another Interrupter to calm the cheerleaders down… Then I’m able to pull him aside and have that personal communication with him, and I can feel my way around him. It’s like doing a psychological analysis to decide what approach I’m going to take with him. Every situation is different.”

“A lot of times I’ll share my experience… ‘Hey, everything you’re going through, I’ve been through before. But the difference is that just like you, I didn’t know how to control this anger. I didn’t know how to vent. I didn’t know exactly what avenues I actually had. So I’m here to help you with that. Vent. Talk to me. How can I help you?’”

He talks more quietly, trying to control his emotions, “I didn’t have anybody back then to kind of process this stuff”, he told me, “With CeaseFire, I’m given that opportunity to actually make a difference, to maybe reach out to individuals such as myself… well, just to reach out to individuals…who are living the way I was living at one time.”

I am reminded of talking to another Interrupter, James Highsmith last year. He said, “I helped create this beast, so I feel like I have no other choice but to do something… This is what you’re supposed to do. I be thinking What can I do, what can I do more, what magic thing can I do to make this stop….? This is what I think about every day. What the hell can I do to make everybody stop killing each other?”

Eddie Bocanegra
Eddie Bocanegra

Driving his beat in West Chicago, Minister Timothy White waves to people who frequently call out to him. His charisma is palpable. “This is the area I grew up in,” he tells me. “This is also the area that I ran the streets in, so I’m familiar with this area, and a lot of people are familiar with me.” This is the hallmark of the CeaseFire Interrupter. He tells me that fathers, unwilling to call the police on their own sons, and equally unwilling to have their sons kill someone, have called him in desperation. “My son’s in the basement loading up. Can you talk to him?” And later, both father and son have thanked him.

He tells me that if he himself can’t stop a potential act of retribution, he’ll know someone who can. “I’ll threaten to call his uncle…And he’ll be like, ‘WHAT?! You’re going to call my uncle?’ ‘He the only one you listen to. So I’m going to see what he says about you going out and killing everyone today.’"

Tim has a social fluidity that’s quite unusual. He understands how to do the violence mediation in an effective way because he has real social credibility with people active in the streets. At the same time, he walks into the PopTech brainstorming session with complete ease.

He explains to the group that currently the Interrupters’ use of technology is fairly basic, simple text messages back and forth between Interrupter and the streets that deliver information about the location of a situation that’s unfolding. Most of the real communication happens in person. Like Eddie, he points out that each situation is different, and his work depends heavily on human experience. “It’s almost as if it’s intuition. When you’re out there, there’s no one particular method. You just have to read the situation.“

Driving around, one of the few places at which we slowed down is Tim’s father’s church: “My father is the pastor… My father was a real busy man ministering to other people. Sometimes he didn’t even see what I was doing… until it was too late.” Tim puts his own kids in basketball and football, and tells them who he was and the mistakes he made. And his children have kept out of trouble. He tells me, “God covered them… I slipped through the cracks …Sometimes one or two will slide through the cracks; here and there you get a bad apple. But that wasn’t bad because what the devil meant for evil, God has turned around and worked it for good, so my background became my resume."

With his troubled background as his resume, Minister Tim White now works with Ceasefire to intervene in troubled situations before conflict turns to violence.

Dr. Slutkin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he feels about saving lives, he told me last year. “I keep my mind on the idea of the program. I am interacting with these Interrupters and the outreach workers, and I think I spend more time thinking about them and who they are, and in a way, kind of how much I love them really. I’m really inspired by them and what they’re doing and how much they’re putting into it. So my mind is on how exciting and cool and challenging and brilliant and committed they are…And how much we’ve got to get help to get it to another level…My mind is so much more on the unfinished business.”

I asked him why he does this work. At first he reacted as though the question simply didn’t make sense. Why does anyone do what they do? “At one level, I think you don’t even know.” He hesitated and sighed, “I mean I’ve been working on the largest issues I could find time after time because what else should you do with your time?

“I feel that as a result of the interaction of all of the experiences that I’ve had – you know I’ve really trained under some amazing people, you know, people who lead the smallpox campaign, who lead the AIDS campaign for the world… And now I’m learning from all these guys on the street and… we’ve GOT to do it. It’s an absolute obligation to take this as far as we can take it.”

Check out presentations and more behind-the-scenes videos from our Social Mapping Workshop and Salon in Chicago.

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