Nov. 5– As a child growing up on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, Marlon Peterson was familiar with crime and violence. By the time he was a teenager, he had been shot once and “jumped” several times. During high school, Peterson gravitated toward drugs and weapons. At 19, he was one of five men arrested for participating in an armed robbery and double-murder in a Soho bakery. At the age of 20, Peterson was sent to jail for 12 years.
After serving ten years of his sentence, Peterson came back to Crown Heights where he began working for Save Our Streets as a “violence interrupter.” The SOS program is a replication ofCease Fire, a successful program in Chicago that focuses on educating the community and mediating conflict to change mindsets about gun violence.
Marlon Peterson holds an after-school workshop for a new youth development program called YO-SOS.
For nearly 30 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African-American men between the ages of 14 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The part of Crown Heights that SOS works with is about 72% African American, according to 2010 Census data. In Precinct 77, which serves Crown Heights, murder is up compared to 1998, the year the Crown Heights Mediation Center opened its doors. That year, there were 9 murders. Last year, there were 20 murders in Precinct 77.
Peterson, now 32 years old, is the program coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, a program that encourages teens to fight gun violence. It operates out of the Crown Heights Mediation Center on Kingston Avenue, part of the Save Our Streets violence mediation program.
The SOS Violence Interrupters canvas the streets to diffuse escalating conflicts before they become deadly. On most nights, VI’s head out around dark – armed with picture postcards of young children that read, “Don’t shoot, I want to grow up.” The VI’s use the cards as conversation starters with those who live in the program’s area of focus: between Atlantic Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Kingston Avenue and Utica Avenue. Their work often starts with a tip from a friend, a phone call from a former gang member, or a few words overheard on the street that hint at a potentially violent situation. Once they arrive at the scene, the VI’s act quickly. They have been trained to separate the groups that are involved, not to step in front of bullets, but rather calm people down and talk them out of using weapons. Some of the most successful mediation attempts have ended with rival gangs shaking hands and walking away.
SOS messengers patrol the streets at night and talk to people about the dangers of gun violence.
Peterson says that SOS works because they use credible messengers – individuals like himself who have “been there, done that, been through some things, and are in a position now where they are willing and able to kind of draw people out from the same rut that they were once in.”
The Cease Fire model treats gun violence the same way an organization would treat a spreading disease. The model began in Chicago after Gary Slutkin, a physician and professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, returned from working on cholera and tuberculosis epidemics in refugees in Somalia. According to the Director of the Mediation Center, Amy Ellenbogen, Slutkin realized that gun violence operates in the same way that many diseases operate. He applied a three pronged approach of disease prevention to identify the presence of gun violence, interrupt and intervene, and change norms and behaviors. According to a U.S. Department of Justice evaluation, this approach has worked in Chicago. They found that 5 out of 8 areas served by Cease Fire, have had a 100% reduction in retaliation murders since they were introduced to the program.
Although major crimes, such as rape and robbery, have decreased in Precinct 77, some community members say that they still don’t feel safe. Phyllis McDuffie has been in the neighborhood for over thirty years. “It’s a really beautiful place, but lately we had shootings, all kind, rape, different things. I just think the community as a whole- Jews, Blacks, all of us- have to come together as one,” she said. Resident Dana Davenport, 26, agrees. She lives in Crown Heights and thinks that the problem lies in the youth. She says that the area needs cops at every corner.
SOS held its second annual Peace March on Oct. 20, 2011.
Peterson says that gun violence is so normalized in neighborhoods like Crown Heights that it has become a public health issue. “You don’t necessarily have to be the person that grew up in a broken household to get involved with violence, whether it be the person that’s a victim of it, the person behind it, or the person who witnesses it first hand,” he said. However, in the area where SOS focuses their efforts, the number of shootings have dropped 60%, according to Ellenbogen. She says they can’t say for sure if their efforts have contributed to this decrease because they have not been evaluated. “But whatever it is, we are happy to be a part of it,” she said.
Peterson says that the community is taking notice of their efforts. The center has distributed signs that now hang in the windows of nearby stores, recording the number of shooting-free days in the SOS catchment area. They hired a clergy liaison, Reverend Kevin Jones, whose own son used to be involved in gangs but now works for SOS. A recent “Week of Peace” featured community-wide anti-violence sermons, a Peace March, and a youth flash mob. Peterson says that compared to when he was a child, people talk about violence more as an unacceptable part of life. And to him, that alone is a “step in the right direction.”