Posted on 25 March 2011.
Protesters marching in support of a gang prevention program in New York based on Chicago's Ceasefire. Photo by Sandhya Dirks.
New statistics just released by the New York City Police Department show that murders are down across the city, except in one group: young African American men.
Last year New York State launched a new gang and gun violence prevention program. It’s based on a model called Ceasefire that began in Chicago, and has been tried in other cities, including Newark and Pittsburgh. In New York it’s called SNUG, that’s guns spelled backwards, and it uses outreach workers to go directly into gang territory and diffuse violent situations.
But Operation SNUG is in danger of losing its funding.
On one of the first almost warm nights of the year, a group of six men and women dressed in dark clothing are walking the streets of East New York, Brooklyn in a tight knit group.
They are patrolling the 75th precinct, the Cities largest. In 2010 there were 33 murders here, more than anywhere else in the 5 boroughs.
Team supervisor Minyarn Johnson says that in the last few months, this group has become a regular presence here.
“When we first started this, everybody was like, ‘Who is this — is that the cops or is that a gang?’” Johnson said. “No, we’re ceasefire, we’re here to help. So as you can see, we are all in uniform, we all look alike. This is our uniform everyday.”
The uniforms are bulky black jackets—on the back– in bold white print– the words “operation SNUG” reflect out into the dark night.
The SNUG team is trying to engage young men hanging out on the corners. Tonight there’s a likely candidate; he has a thick black ponytail, nervously smoking a cigarette. The team hangs back—while one of the outreach workers goes over to talk. Team supervisor Johnson says he’s what’s called a possible.
“Because we have to make sure that he’s serious about wanting change, so today it’s just the first step,” Johnson said.
The SNUG team knows this first conversation can’t be the last. But this kind of constant presence is expensive. A total of ten ceasefire programs across New York are costing the state 4 million dollars this year. And because of budget cuts the state has not earmarked funding for SNUG next year.
But Outreach worker Tiz Mack says that you can’t do this program half way—
“They got a million other people that’s in their ear so we gotta stay in constant contact with them,” Mach said. “So I gotta call them two times a day, see them six times a month. Sometimes I feel like I am talking in one ear and out the other, but I know it’s one block at a time, one person at a time.”
Mack knows this first hand.
“I went upstate for a robbery when I was 17,” Mack said. “I used to do robberies when I was little. I mean, you can’t be ashamed of what you’ve done. You just got to look at it, you got to learn from it, and you gotta use it as a tool to teach others.”
And that’s exactly what he does.
“You know I can walk inside apartments where people are selling drugs, guns is out,” Mack said. “I know them, they know me, they trust me. So when I come with my snug operation jacket, they know I’m not coming to hurt them.”
The jacket that Tiz Mack and the rest of the team wears also says “Ceasefire” – that’s because they were trained by members of the Chicago program, where Ceasefire began. It was created by an epidemiologist who was trying to stop the spread of deadly diseases like cholera in Africa, says journalist Alex Kotlowitz.
“He began to sort of think about violence as an infectious disease, and began to wonder if you thought about violence as an infectious disease if you couldn’t treat it,” Kotlowitz said.
Kotlowitz has been writing about Ceasefire for over a decade. He says its goal is to end the transmission of violence. But that has deeper roots, and Kotlowitz says it is hard to know how much Ceasefire can do about them.
“The place of outreach workers is also to try and get people back on their feet, to get them back into school to get them jobs,” Kotlowitz said. “But what if there aren’t good schools out there or if there aren’t jobs? Again to borrow from the public health analogy, it’s not unlike treating cholera, in that case provide clean drinking water.”
To continue the metaphor, the water has been dirtied in East New York by decades of institutionalized poverty. Chicago has many of the same issues, and Ceasefire made real inroads there. But New York State is close to broke. State Senator Malcolm Smith brought the program here, and his office says in an economy like this, it’s almost impossible to convince politicians to spend money on a something that hasn’t been locally tested.
Outreach workers say that test is coming soon—they’ve spent the winter making connections and earning trust. They’ll find out if it worked this summer, when the cycle of violence traditionally spikes.