Urban Violence on the Rise

Many American cities are experiencing a rise in murder rates, with last month being one of the deadliest. Wall Street Journal reporter Gary Fields, who's been covering the murder spike, offers insights about what's behind the increase. And Tio Hardiman, who works with a Chicago-based anti-violence group called Cease Fire, discusses efforts in his city to stop violence before it happens.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, a cyclone over the weekend in Myanmar has devastated the Southeast Asian country and killed tens of thousands. We'll hear about the latest efforts to get help there and how one family's been affected. And, we'll tell you about another health crisis in that region that hardly anybody seems to talk about: severe and disabling burns among women and children. But first, here in America there's a health crisis, too, playing out in big cities. It's murder. Deadly killings are on the rise and April was particularly violent. What's behind this increasing killings and what might stop it? We're going to ask two men who've been thinking a great deal about this. Gary Fields is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He wrote about the murder spike. And Tio HardimAn is director of gang mediation and community organizing with CeaseFire. He's in Chicago. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Mr. GARY FIELDS (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thank you for having me.

Mr. TIO HARDIMAN (Director, CeaseFire): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Gary, you pointed out that in Washington, D.C. alone, there were 20 percent more killings this April than last and the same thing's been happening in a number of cities around the country. The first thing I want to ask you is how did you notice this? And the reason I ask is that these stories often come across like a drip, drip, drip. You know, a paragraph here, three paragraphs there. How did you put it together that there was a pattern?

Mr. FIELDS : Well, part of it was the fact that, you know, we pay attention to the drip, drip, drip, going on around the country, and you sit back and say, we need to sit down and actually look at this and make a concerted effort to try to put the documentation together to see what's really going on, rather than just doing this paragraph at a time, paragraph at a time.

And then it's a simple function of calling medical examiners, police departments, and things. And then you realize, well, we have a bigger pattern than just what's going on in those specific communities.

MARTIN: Well, was it just the volume of these paragraph-by-paragraph stories that made you realize there was a big story? You know what I mean, because one of the things I think happens is that people become immune to it.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, it was a combination of that, but there was also, you know, reports and things like that that come out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that people don't necessarily pay attention to as much, and one of the last homicide reports that had come out on the crime statistics showed that while crime was down and while homicides were down overall in the country, there was a segment of our population, the African-American population, where they were beginning to rise again. So, that combined with all of these paragraphs which you keep seeing the compilation of, you know, says you need to look at this because there's something else going on that needs an explanation.

MARTIN: And obviously, you know, once you come up with the what you want to ask why? What did your reporting come up with? Why is this happening?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, first off, we came up with the usual reasons as you called around. You know, the economy, and obviously, if the economy is impacting everybody in the middle class, and, you know, the economy is going to be even more devastating and the impact's going to be even more devastating down on the lower socioeconomic communities. So that was one thing.

You know, there was the usual lack of education, but one of the more interesting things, and it was the first time I had heard it in almost three decades was, well, some of this is guys coming back from prisons. We're starting to actually get people coming back, and the heroes in some of these neighborhoods, you know, they're not sports stars. They're the guys who've actually gone off and, you know, maybe made big money doing whatever they were doing. These guys are the role models, and when they bring this culture back and the culture's all about respect and disrespect and dealing with it immediately, then they have these acolytes who are picking it up in the neighborhoods, as well, and you end up with situations where these minor infractions that you and I, you know, slough off every day, can be deadly.

MARTIN: Now, Tio, you work with an organization called CeaseFire in Chicago. I'm going to ask you in a minute to talk about the organization. Folks from your group have been on the program before, but before I do that, I want to ask, you know, what's your take on what's behind this increase in murder?

Mr. HARDIMAN: There's a lot of reasons and I - first of all, I want to compliment Mr. Fields on the article. I read the article thoroughly. First of all, you have a lot of petty conflicts that turn into major, you know, violence. You know, definitely the gangs are an issue, the drug lifestyle, but most important, it's a personal violence. People don't know how to resolve petty conflicts when they could stop it before it escalates. They just don't want to do that because of the prison code. You know, this macho thing and then the pride, you know, and just staying committed to the street values. That's one of the main reasons behind the rise of violence here in Chicago.

MARTIN: So you buy that idea that the prison culture has moved into the community?

Mr. HARDIMAN: I think we need to explore it a little bit more, and I do buy that concept, though, because a lot of people bUy the code. Guys get shot everyday across the United States. If you go the hospitals to visit them, they won't even tell you who shot them. OK? So that goes to show you there's a code there and a lot of that code comes from the prisons because in the prisons you don't talk about anything.

MARTIN: One of the numbers that jumped out at me is that African-Americans are 13 percent of the population, but 49 percent of all murder victims. What's up with that? Gary, and then Tio I want to hear from you, too.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, that's one of the things that definitely got my attention because you're looking at it and you realize, hey, we didn't know this, and one of the reasons we don't know it is because people on my side of the aisle, the ones who are supposed to be covering this - you know, back in the late eighties and early nineties we tried to actually cover quite a few homicides. I was a police reporter here in D.C. and we try to roll out and go out on every homicide. But we've become desensitized. We've moved on and it's almost like these things aren't happening. If you die in a certain zip code, did you really get murdered? That's kind of the attitude and especially, you know, within the media, and that would be me whipping on our own profession.

So then you look up one day and you realize, you know, we're 49.8 percent of the murder victims, you know. Next up would be Caucasian victims who are somewhere around 48 percent, so we've somehow managed to blow by everybody and have the absolute numbers. And by all indication, we're probably over 50 percent now because of the way things have been going because of these surges, so I'm not sure what's going on.

MARTIN: Tio, what do you think?

Mr. HARDIMAN: Well, first and foremost, on behalf of CeaseFire, you know, we have to learn how to change the mindset of the people that are involved in violence. Here at CeaseFire we look at violence as a disease, an epidemic, and it's learned behavior, and we have to be able to really get into the, you know, the minds of people to stop the transmission of violence, because from January to the end of April we've already mediated 68 conflicts in Chicago that could have led to a shooting or a homicide, and we've experienced a 40 percent - 45 percent average reduction in shooting in the areas that we work in, OK?

MARTIN: And tell us more about how you work, if you would?

Mr. HARDIMAN: We have guys, we call them violence interrupters and outreach workers. The violence interrupters are like the first wave of guys that go out. They get wind of conflicts in the community and they go and they talk to guys on both sides. You see, there's no way to resolve violence without confrontation because when guys want to shoot, you know, other people, you have to really step to them a certain way, so we've hired a lot of ex-offenders with a lot of credibility in the community.

And then the outreach workers try to guide the guys to social services, you know, get them back in school. As a matter fact, in 2007, we worked with 900 high-risk individuals here in Chicago and we got 35 percent of them back into school. The other 35 percent we got them into employment, and the other 30 percent of the people we had to, you know, get them into other social service agencies. You know, like substance abuse counseling, and you know, a little extra help for them.

MARTIN: In fact, Gary, you made the point in your piece that I also found interesting, in addition to this kind of the prison culture moving to the neighborhoods argument, that interrupted education seems to play role in this, that a very large percentage of the people that are involved in murders and murdering people have dropped out of school. What are the experts saying about why that might play a role?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, if you've dropped out of school, there are a couple of things that are happening. One, the amount of time that you're actually around, that you normally would have spent in a classroom, you're not out on the street someplace because chances are, your family's not particularly happy with you, so you're probably not hanging out at the house in front of your mom because she wants you take your behind back to school. You're not necessarily hanging out in the neighborhoods - you're not hanging out, for instance in D.C., in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, you're hanging out over in parts of Anacostia, Ward 7, Ward 8. You're hanging out in areas where you know there's potential danger and things going on.

Anyway, so you are very available, bottom line, to be a target and so that's one of the reasons in terms of, you know, the murders and the murder victims. You know, I found that to be one of the most interesting points that I saw, was, you know, we are all aware of victimhood and we're all aware of people committing crimes who don't have an education, but I don't know that anybody has ever truly studied what role does that lack of education play in victimhood.

MARTIN: Interesting. Tio, if you take your concept that this a virus, this is like a public health crisis, like some sort of an epidemic, what else do you think would be helpful in intervening in that epidemic? You intervene on a sort of case-by-case basis, with individuals. Are there other things that in the course of doing this work you have thought would be helpful?

Mr. HARDIMAN: Yeah. There are five components to CeaseFire. We talk about multiple messages. One of the components is faith-based leaders collaboration. Criminal justice collaboration and that's the second component. A strong public education campaign where you just prop a lot of information out in the community, you know, to that part of the population. And number four is that I recently (unintelligible) services, so we go out and we begin to mobilize the community, as well. So, we're going to need the help of the whole community to go out and really, really confront this issue of violence, this epidemic of violence, and find out exactly what a lot of the people really need out there in the communities.

One thing I'm doing tonight is that I'm going to facilitate a conflict resolution training right on a block, right on the corner of a block on the south side of Chicago. And try to identify ten men on the block to train in the field of conflict resolution and then take it block-by-block, so when these little petty arguments break out on the blocks and fights break out, the parents and the people on the block can get involved and disrupt the violent right there on the spot.

MARTIN: But if you take Gary's point that part of the issue is that the people who engage in this kind of conduct have way more stature that we would like them to, how do you intervene in that?

Mr. HARDIMAN: Well, that's true.

MARTIN: That they are just, they're important, they're people who have dysfunctional conflict resolution skills are looked upon with more respect that people who actually are functional, how do you intervene in that?

Mr. HARDIMAN: Well, you get the parents and the family involved. I used to work with a group of very radical young men here in Chicago on the west side of Chicago, and their names were the Blaylock family and there was one guy in their family, their uncle, he was the postman. That's the only guy in their family they respected. Other than that, they would shoot everybody up on the block.

But I would go get their uncle and we would go in. There were about 30 brothers, I mean, 30 cousins and brothers and they would listen to me and their uncle. So you have to give people in the community - everybody listens to somebody. And you have to identify that person that they respect and that's how you begin to really turn this trend around. You know, turn this trend of violence around.

MARTIN: Gary, final thought from you, 30 seconds.

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah, one thing that I think needs to be done is there's this whole perception of snitching that I think plays a tremendous part because so many of these killings and things go on. I think that a person that's capable of doing that, this isn't the first time that they've done something to have this kind of violence. So we need to actually deal with breaking up this whole cultural of I won't snitch, you being a good citizen.

MARTIN: Gary Fields is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He was kind enough to join me here in our Washington studio. And Tio Hardiman is director of gang mediation and community organizing at CeaseFire. He was kind enough to join me on the phone from Chicago. I thank you both so much for talking with us.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

Mr. HARDIMAN: Thank you.

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