CeaseFire an imperfect solution to violent city

By Sara Harvey

By the time this gets published, the news may have already changed.

Sometimes it’s difficult to stay current when you’re a weekly newspaper. You have to choose your stories carefully. When writing this on Oct. 16, I saw a story in the Chicago Tribune about two members of CeaseFire, Juan Johnson and Harold Martinez, who were charged on Oct. 15 following a gang bust on the Northwest Side.

The article didn’t give any details about CeaseFire, probably because most Chicagoans know what this storied group stands for and how it operates. It just said that the two CeaseFire members, called “violence interrupters,” were working with the gang.

While more news may be reported about what happened, one thing won’t change: CeaseFire has a stain on its record, fueled by the public’s opinion.

This news really hurts a group whose people train to intervene in gang disputes and ultimately prevent shootings. And the public is angry about it.

I went to ChicagoTribune.com in hopes of getting insight from some fellow readers. “Sounds like we’re funding gangbangers so they don’t have to get real jobs that would distract them from their street life,” one commenter wrote. “Does this make you wonder how many gang members have infiltrated the Chicago PD?” another wrote.

People in the comments seemed to have given up hope that anything is really what it seems these days. People in this town are used to corruption.

CeaseFire, for those who don’t know, indeed uses an unconventional method to reduce violence. Most of its workers are former gang members who have joined the group to help. The violence interrupters’ experience and knowledge of the way gangs work is what helps make an intervention successful. To connect with someone, you have to speak the language. The messenger has more credibility when they’re like you. It was a CeaseFire strategy.

The former gang members are just that-ex-felons no longer affiliated with a gang. Apparently, that doesn’t apply to Johnson and Martinez.

These two men were helping a gang-the Spanish Cobras-operate and were contributing to violence, however indirectly. Halting drug trade and ridding the city of gangs isn’t CeaseFire’s goal.

The only thing the group is concerned with is putting an end to violence in Chicago. Unfortunately, abetting drug trade is clearly counterproductive to CeaseFire’s mission, and they need to make this known. CeaseFire needs to let the public know it thinks it is unacceptable for its members to revert back to their old ways.

CeaseFire has proven that its methods are effective. The violence and shootings in CeaseFire zones-which include Englewood, Logan Square, Rogers Park, East and West Garfield Park, Auburn-Gresham and West Humboldt Park-have seen a 16 to 40 percent drop due to the program.

The violence interrupters are reviewed by a panel and drug tested. The background and credential checks for each person are extensive, and when they are hired, they are trained in stress management, legal aid for clients, substance abuse awareness and conflict resolution. But no matter the precautions, some slip through the cracks, according to a report done by researchers at Northwestern University and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the report, at least three of CeaseFire’s employees had been arrested for drug possession or getting caught up in a sting since the program began in 1999. When you look at that and compare it to the reduced violence in CeaseFire zones, it’s worth it.

The ChicagoTribune.com commenters were right in their disgust of the arrests, but it’s doubtful they understand the bigger picture. And with Mayor Richard M. Daley refusing new hires at the Chicago Police Department in 2009, CeaseFire could be needed more than ever before.

We may learn more about Johnson and Martinez’s case after this column is printed, and hopefully, CeaseFire officials will speak up about the men’s involvement. The group needs to express its disappointment and, if possible, find a way to repair its damaged reputation.