With gun violence approaching epidemic proportions in the United States, Project CeaseFire is approaching the issue from a new perspective: treating it like the epidemic it is. It’s one of the few evidence-based methods for tackling gun violence that aims to counteract the problem at its source, focusing on prevention through intervention, education and other public outreach measures to make communities safer. Founded in Chicago, it’s spread to other U.S. cities and attracted worldwide attention thanks to the film The Interrupters, which profiled some of the people who work for the organization.
One of the key components of the Project CeaseFire approach is the use of “violence interrupters,” who play a very unique role. These people establish themselves as trusted community leaders, building rapport with residents of an area so that when they see signs of a conflict, they can step in to deescalate. The founders of Project CeaseFire noticed that many incidents of gun violence were random, or the result of minor conflicts that were allowed to blow up. By intervening at the source, the interrupters can increase the chances of surviving a conflict alive and well.
Notably, many interrupters are former gang members themselves, and some have served time in prison. By employing ex-offenders, Project CeaseFire also highlights another issue with the cycle of violence in the U.S. Many people have trouble finding work after leaving jail or prison, and can fall back into dangerous habits even if they want to improve their lives. Project CeaseFire offers a way out to the people with the direct experience that can help when it comes to defusing tensions in the streets and helping people seek alternatives to violence.
Interrupters aren’t the only thing Project CeaseFire has going for it. The program also conducts outreach to get teens into GED programs, help youth get out of gangs, connect young adults with drug and alcohol treatment, help teen parents and get at-risk youth into the workforce. All of these measures are designed to act preventatively to keep violence from happening and to bring it in check; rather than allowing it to spread through a community like a virus, they create buffers, a set of antibodies, if you will, that promote peaceful, safe communities.
Chicago, the city where the program started, has expanded its coverage, while a number of Illinois cities have also joined with partnership programs of their own. Nationally, Project CeaseFire is active in New Orleans, Oakland, New York City, Baltimore and a number of other locations. Many of these programs have showed concrete successes in terms of radically reducing the incidence of violence on the streets and helping troubled youth carve out new futures for themselves.
In an era where violence seems inescapable, Project CeaseFire is offering a helping hand and a way out; can more U.S. cities commit to bringing in this innovative intervention program, and can those with existing programs expand their funding to increase their staffing and coverage? If they do, the United States could experience a radical shift in the way gun violence is handled, and the number of young adults, primarily young black men, dying on the streets could experience a much-needed decline.
Photo credit: Michael Saechang