A Surefire Solution

When I first began reporting from Chicago's West Side 24 years ago, what most upended me was the violence. Four boys I got to know have since been murdered, another two convicted of murder. One mother whom I befriended fell so deep into grief after a gang member executed her 15-year-old son that for a period of time she could eat nothing but sand. Such violence disrupts the psyche of communities. Businesses leave. Schools can't teach. Families, if they're able, move out. On Chicago's West or South Side, block-club signs, ordinarily a testament of cohesiveness and pride, reflect a community back on its heels. One sign, which is typical, reads: "No loitering. No gambling dice or cards. No alcohol drinking. No playing loud music. No repairing cars. No playing ball."

All of this may explain why David Kennedy looms so large. A professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, he's one of the few national figures grappling with urban violence. His book, Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, attempts to spell out his theory of combating violence and to tell stories of its practice, a program known as Operation Ceasefire. Kennedy writes with such certitude about his experiment (he would not like his work referred to this way) that it's sometimes difficult to know what to believe. Nonetheless, Kennedy is on to something: Most people who find themselves in disputes with others would, all things considered, rather not resort to violence. Most are not "bad guys" -- which is how the police usually refer to them -- but rather individuals who, because of the forces bearing down on them, get to the point where a squabble can turn into something more.

In a film I (along with the director Steve James) just completed on inner-city violence, one of the subjects reflects on what she calls "the 30 seconds of rage." It goes, she says, something like this: "I didn't eat this morning. I'm wearing my niece's clothes. I just was violated by my mom's boyfriend. I go to school, and here comes someone that bumps into me and don't say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within 30 seconds, and you act out." Kennedy understands the often unbearable burden of living in profound poverty, but he believes those who commit violence are rational actors and thinkers. Given the choice, he says, they would rather not kill to settle disputes. Like the rest of us, they want what's best for themselves and their families. With that fundamental premise in mind, he has set out to get people in America's inner cities to put down their guns.

More than 50 cities have adopted Operation Ceasefire -- according to Kennedy, with great success. What Kennedy proposes is "stupid simple," as he once told a reporter. As a matter of course, the police conduct extensive investigations on gangs or drug dealers in troubled communities. Armed with that information, the police then invite gangs to a kind of scared-straight session and tell them that if any of their friends kill someone, the law is going to come down hard -- on everyone. Kennedy uses the analogy of an officer getting shot. Shoot a cop, and the police will pressure everyone who might be associated with the suspect. Why not try something similar in all killings? Kennedy asks. Law enforcement ordinarily works on the assumption that the way to reduce the violence is to concentrate on individuals, but Kennedy emphasizes the power of the group, or what social scientists call "informal social control." As he puts it, "Shame, conscience, guilt, what your friends think, what your mom thinks, what your community thinks -- meant far more than 'formal social control': cops, courts, probation." In other words, Kennedy is out to change the social norm.

The other central figure in the anti-violence effort is Gary Slutkin, who runs an anti-violence organization in Chicago that goes by the same name as Kennedy's but takes a different approach. (Full disclosure: My film profiles three workers from Slutkin's organization.) An epidemiologist, Slutkin thinks of violence as an infectious disease. At the center of his efforts are men and women, all formerly of the street, whose task it is to stop disputes before they escalate -- to interrupt the transmission of violence. Although Slutkin's and Kennedy's theories differ, they share a belief that it's essential to change the way a group or community views violence. Still, a proverbial chicken-and-egg question hovers over both Kennedy's and Slutkin's approaches: Reduce shootings or improve conditions -- which should come first? Kennedy is convinced that we can't create better schools or lure businesses to inner cities if we can't first stop the killings. I've become convinced that it's not either/or and that it would be a terrible mistake to pursue one path over the other. In Don't Shoot, Kennedy acknowledges the place of, say, drug treatment and jobs in redirecting lives. In one account, he celebrates the story of one of his colleagues in Cincinnati who gets a job for a young man recently out of prison with his brother's roofing company. That's hardly a jobs program. Still, I admire people like Kennedy who have taken on inner-city violence with a laser-like focus, leaving the other questions to those better qualified.

Last year, Kennedy came to Chicago and, along with the police, invited gang members from the West Side to a meeting, where they were told the police were going to crack down on all of them if anyone was shot. In the succeeding four months, homicides decreased by 40 percent from the previous year, according to the Chicago Police Department. Will that last? Kennedy is sure it will. Much of his work, though, depends on the police restoring a sense of trust with a community that has long looked on the authorities, especially law enforcement, with suspicion. By this summer, the number of fatal shootings of suspects by the Chicago police had exceeded all of last year's. The police suggest they're getting shot at more often, which speaks volumes about their lack of what Kennedy calls "legitimacy." The Chicago Police Department has expanded Kennedy's program to another district.

Kennedy's approach, despite his protestations to the contrary, seems like friendlier yet stricter policing. Toward the end of his book, he writes: "People will accept a result they don't like, as long as they feel that they've been treated with fairness and decency." Agreed. Although he brings social workers and ex-cons to the sit-downs with gang members, the police are running the show, and I worry that his program amounts to a further crackdown on those whom Kennedy, despite his sensitivities, occasionally refers to as "thugs." If we call people something long enough, they'll come to embody it. Such language may be testament not so much to what Kennedy believes but rather to the sloppiness of Don't Shoot, which provokes in unintended ways. This is a maddening book about a maddening problem.

Don't Shoot reads like a sales pitch. From the subtitle (One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America) to Kennedy's mantra ("Looks like it will travel. Looks like it will work here."), too much of this polemic comes across as self-serving and overstated. The end of violence? Really? If you agree with Kennedy, you're smart. If you don't ... well, you get the picture. Kennedy so wants us to applaud his work that you want to take him by the shoulders and ask, "Don't you have any doubt? Not even a sliver?" At one point, he writes, "We know what we need to know, now, to fix it." This surety, which borders on the dogmatic, damages Kennedy's ability to share his experiences and work, which are vital in making sense of inner-city violence and finding a way to stop it.