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Members of Chicago CRED hold up signs and chant in a Roseland/West Pullman neighborhood.

Members of Chicago CRED hold up signs and chant in a Roseland/West Pullman neighborhood on Thursday, May 25, 2023, during a walk to raise awareness of violence prevention.

Anthony Vazquez

‘Peacekeepers’ try to prevent violence using hard-won street smarts

On a summer evening in the part of the South Side known to some as the “Wild Hundreds,” Cedric Hawkins walked with a cheery mob of current and former gang members, pointing out invisible landmarks.

A few square blocks — bounded roughly by 117th and 119th on either side of Perry Street in West Pullman — is Buff City, named for a Black Disciples member killed when Hawkins was a teenager.

The slight slope along South Michigan Avenue divides Up the Hill and Down the Hill, topography that borders two cliques of the Gangster Disciples.

“And the GDs that stay up the hill don’t like the GDs down the hill,” Hawkins said. “And all that can change by the day.”

He pointed out closed schools and formerly vibrant shops and a site that was most meaningful to one of Hawkins’ fellow travelers.

“That dude up there, he got shot right on this corner,” Hawkins said as he strode toward State and 119th, gesturing toward a tall gang member with thick braids emerging from his baseball cap.

“Nine times,” the onetime victim said.

Peacekeepers walk the streets of Roseland canvassing hotspots for violence.

Peacekeepers walk the streets of Roseland and West Pullman on Thursday, making a nightly canvass of hotspots for violence. Some 500 workers, drawn from a population of city residents at high risk of being involved in gun violence — as a victim or perpetrator — will be stationed in 102 sites this year to suppress violence.

Anthony Vazquez

Such hard-won knowledge of the streets is among the qualifications for the dozen or so South Siders canvassing this often-violent section of West Pullman and Roseland.

As Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer — and historically a seasonal surge in violence — CRED is one of more than a dozen community organizations that are dividing $11 million in state funding to try and prevent violence. Part of that is through the group’s FLIP program, which provides $100 daily stipends for these “peacekeepers.”

FLIP — Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace — and similar programs have nearly doubled in size thanks to funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services and local, federal and philanthropic dollars amid a surge in violent crime that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic.

This summer will see 500 workers assigned to 102 “hot spots” — pockets in Chicago’s 14 most violent neighborhoods that together account for half the city’s killings. Another crisis team of 30 outreach workers was launched this year to work in the city’s bustling downtown.

From February to May, when FLIP workers were deployed, targeted hot spots have seen a 21% decrease in shootings, well above a 14% decline citywide in the same span. In 88 of the 102 hot spots, there were no shootings, according to a report by the Center for Neighborhood Engaged Research & Science at Northwestern University.

The study noted that the data isn’t complete enough to draw a link between the presence of FLIP workers and shootings. But growing evidence is showing that FLIP and outreach programs targeting the people most involved in violence can help curb the numbers of killings, said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, who sponsored the Reimagine Public Safety Act and paved the way for state funding for FLIP-style programs.

“These folks are working in the hottest zones of the city, taking immense risks, and it has a track record of success,” Peters said. “We have to make sure that we are trying things that are working and moving away from things that aren’t.”

FLIP participants march in Roseland and West Pullman.

For their stipends, FLIP participants take on an eight-hour shift Tuesday through Saturday in their neighborhoods.

Anthony Vazquez

Anthony Riccio, a former deputy chief who retired this year after three decades with the Chicago Police Department, has seen FLIP and many of its predecessors come and go. Riccio pointed to a time the city put $2 million into CeaseFire, which hired former gang members as “violence interrupters” to suppress ongoing conflicts. CeaseFire lost city funding amid the economic downturn in 2009, never having won the trust of police brass or rank-and-file officers, Riccio said.

“You can never quantify shootings that don’t occur, so I think it’s hard to say they de-escalated anything,” Riccio said. “I think a lot of officers would prefer that money be spent other ways… I’d rather have two police officers than 30 violence interrupters any day of the week.”

For their stipends, FLIP participants take on an eight-hour shift Tuesday through Saturday in their neighborhoods. The workers get training in conflict resolution, but their credibility to mediate disputes and know when friction between groups is inching toward violence comes from having once — and for some recruits, still having — a foot in street life, said Terrance Henderson, manager of Outreach Operations for CRED.

Henderson said that police and residents in hot spot neighborhoods might not recognize when FLIP workers have moved from being bad actors to peacemakers. FLIP workers wear colored vests in part to identify themselves and try to avoid attacks by former rivals and being stopped by police officers who might have arrested them in the past.

“There are a lot of guys out here who won’t give us the time of day,” Henderson said, watching as a half dozen members of his FLIP crew pushed a stalled car down South Michigan Avenue. “They’re completely engulfed in the warfare and the violence. These here are trying to make a change. Give ‘em a little grace.”

Rival gang members also might not identify or care about the shift. Ronnie Roper was gunned down two weeks ago in the daytime in front of a building where CRED holds classes for a program of intensive job training and behavioral therapy. Roper was on track to earn a high school diploma in August, though he remained too “hot” to do outreach work or even be seen out in the open, Henderson said.

“There are some people who are just too hot to ever be out here,” Henderson said. “They’ve just done too much, and too many people will be looking for them, always.”

Recruits for FLIP are drawn from a pool of Chicagoans, nearly all of them Black and Latino men ranging from their teens to 30s, who are among the most at-risk of being shot or shooting someone else. They’re identified by an algorithm that analyzes webs of family and friendships called social networks, data on shootings and arrests, as well as knowledge gleaned by outreach workers on the players in ongoing conflicts. Statistically, they are 50 times more likely to be shooters or victims than the average Chicagoan.

FLIP workers tend to be younger, in their teens and 20s and far closer to the violence, so they’re seen as better able to talk with some of the most active participants in gang conflicts, which often stem from minute, even banal grudges.

Charles Bowers, 26, is working for FLIP covering a few blocks of Buff Town near where he grew up — and at one time sold drugs and ran with gang members. Standing on the porch of a house on Perry Street, he spoke of a friend who was shot in the chest in the same spot a few years ago. Down the block, earlier this month, Bowers said he was able to tamp down a conflict between a gang member he’d known since childhood and an older man brandishing a gun.

“I seen he had a gun, and I stepped in, just got between ‘em,” Bowers said.

How did that work? And how did he not end up getting shot?

“They’re my people,” Bowers said. “I know them. They know me. They know I’ve been out there, I’ve done stuff. I changed that, but I’m still a regular person to them.”

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