Peace in the Hood: Ex-gang members work to end violence

Once gangs take hold in a neighborhood, they choke it through fear and violence. Young men are challenged and hassled if they walk down an unfamiliar block, fifth-graders are recruited to sell drugs on their way to school, parks become gang hangouts instead of play areas, businesses are forced to pay protection money — most just leave, gunfire and police sirens are backdrop noises.

Street gangs are a scourge of society that no one has been able to solve or even make a dent in. Instead, the opposite has happened over the past two decades. They have spread across the nation, and even across national borders.

They are no longer just a big-city phenomenon. Gangs are extending their influence as they seek new markets for drugs and other criminal businesses, including human and sex trafficking. From Little Rock to Omaha to Tacoma, places you never expected to have gang issues now have them.

Police have come to realize they cannot battle gang crime alone. As Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck often says, “we cannot arrest our way out of this.” Every time a gang member is put behind bars, another takes his place. Poverty, lack of jobs, and low quality schools create a never-ending supply of candidates who don’t see opportunity anywhere else.

Gang intervention, the concept of using former gang members to disrupt the cycle of retaliation that drives gang violence, can help stop the bloodshed. It works in a way that’s impossible for law enforcement and others — from the inside, not the outside.

Interventionists, also called interrupters, hammer out truce and ceasefires between rival gangs, track down rumors that can result in innocent people getting shot in revenge, mentor misguided youth, console the grieving. They make sure paramedics and police can do their work at crime scenes unhindered by riled up crowds. They provide security at gang funerals and in hospitals where the wounded are recovering — favorite soft targets for retaliation. They talk angry gang members out of avenging the death of a homeboy, desperate parolees out of returning to the life. They walk kids to school so they don’t get recruited by gangs, and provide role models showing youths there is a way out of gangs, and meaning in life beyond gang feuds and gunfire.

Gang members talk to interventionists because they know the interventionist’s role is not to arrest them or pull out a gun — they don’t carry weapons. They listen to interventionists because they have street credibility or an “LTO,” a license to operate, from living the violence.

Hard-core intervention work is not for everyone. Stepping into the unforgiving world of violence and mayhem is stressful and takes a personal toll. It involves a delicate balancing act. Interventionists cannot get involved in the vices of gang life, but they have to remain close enough to the gang to maintain ties and influence, and gather the street intelligence they need to operate. They work to steer youth away from gangs, but cannot judge gang lifestyle. They are not police informants, but must maintain a loose working relationship with community-based law enforcement and other official agencies.

The work can be mentally taxing and downright disheartening when a hard-won gang truce falls apart or a kid who was going back to school is hanging out again on the corner.

It can also be physically dangerous. Interventionists are dealing with people who see violence as a source of their self-esteem, a badge of honor and a normal way of doing business. For some, it’s a family tradition going back as many as three generations. In a shoot-first-ask-questions-later climate, a wrong word, look or gesture, or even just the perception of such, can squeeze a trigger.

Getting in the middle of this mindset requires interpersonal skills, rational thinking, and a lot of commitment. Many interventionists start with good intentions but a large percentage burn out, unable to cope with the emotional challenges, the lack of resources, and the low level of appreciation for the work — many work as volunteers. A few are unable to resist re-entering gang life.

Fortunately, gang intervention programs are spreading, as well as programs to train interventionists. From a slow start in the mid-1990s, they have become an accepted part of the strategy against gang violence. There are successful programs using trained interventionists in Los Angeles, Seattle, Tacoma, the District of Columbia, Newark, San Diego and Montgomery County, Maryland, just to name a few.

Gang intervention doesn’t replace the traditional measures: social services, schools, parenting, law enforcement and personal development, which are all essential. Instead, intervention works alongside those elements by enlisting the expertise and authority of former gang members who can reach the perpetrators like no one else can.

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