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Question of How to Fight Gangs Remains Unanswered, Despite $2 Million Grant

Story by Zach Wilmes

Oct. 8, 2008 – The U.S. Justice Department announced in August it would be giving the city of Chicago $2 million to combat gang activity. Still unknown, however, is who will get that money and how they will use it.

CeaseFire, an organization dedicated to preventing gang violence in Chicago, would be a logical recipient. CeaseFire’s state funding through the Illinois Department of Corrections had been cut due to budget restrictions in 2007. But a wave of school shootings following the cutback prompted reconsideration, and funding for the organization was reinstated, said CeaseFire spokesman Dan Dighton.

Chicago has seen an increase in violence in recent years. Although some statistics indicate that community activism through organizations like CeaseFire can help deter people who may be susceptible to gang influence, there is no consensus on how to solve the problem.

CeaseFire, which has been operating in Chicago since 1999, employs people called “violence interceptors” to actively engage gang members and neighborhood residents in order to mediate conflicts, according to Dighton.

Most violence interceptors are former gang members themselves, which presumably gives them credibility. They canvass the streets of some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, trying to dissuade people from succumbing to the allure of gang life.

Dighton said their efforts are working, especially in West Garfield Park and West Humbolt Park. CeaseFire keeps a close eye on statistics and research studies, like a recently published three-year effort by Northwestern University, to determine their effectiveness and make improvements where needed, he said. They also have the support of police and city officials. In many cases, according to Dighton, the city provides information about shootings so CeaseFire can focus their efforts where they’re most needed.

But statistics can be misleading as John Hagedorn, an associate professor of criminology and law at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points out, and Northwestern also acknowledged it came to its conclusion through a research process that was by no means “a neat laboratory experiment.”

“[CeaseFire’s] numbers are more PR than reflect their capacity to influence violence,” said Hagedorn, who has been studying gang activity in Chicago for 20 years, and has written several books on the subject.

“What seems to be playing the major role in Chicago’s continued rates of homicide, two to three times as high as New York City’s,” Hagedorn said, “is the instability in black neighborhoods due to the impact of the dispersal of families by the destruction of public housing, gentrification and the closing of schools.”

Hagedorn said that segregation is the root cause of violence in the city.

“Chicago has not invested in communities, particularly black communities, in ways that build them up — only ways that either confine or disperse [them],” he said.  In this sense, organizations like CeaseFire, though well intentioned, act more like a Band-Aid than an antidote.

But regardless of how you interpret the numbers, organizations like CeaseFire continue to have the support of the communities they operate in, if for no other reason than at least someone’s willing to lend a hand.

“I’m a big supporter of CeaseFire,” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor at Greater St. John Bible Church in West Garfield Park and co-chair of the LEADER’S Network, a coalition of religious groups and community organizations. “Having a group of ‘street guys’ getting in the trenches is great.”

“The cops can’t do it all,” Dighton said. “We’re all trying to stop violence and make the city safer.”

Dighton said his organization has not applied for the grant, and that they have already received $400,000 from the Justice Department in addition to their $6.25 million in annual state funding from the Department of Corrections.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department would not comment on how the money would be dispersed.

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