Moral Support

On Friday, President Obama came to the south side of Chicago carrying the themes of his State of the Union message, and addressed the gun violence that has been in the news here and nationally.

I’m glad he came – many politicians wouldn’t even do that much.  From one former community organizer to another, I recognize the importance of being there for people, even if just for moral support.

He brought answers to the situation of violence, none of them easy - jobs, education, and a focus on fatherhood.  Even these are not magic solutions.  As he said “We may not be able to save every child from gun violence, but if we save a few, that starts changing the atmosphere in our communities.  We may not be able to get everybody a job right away, but if we get a few folks a job, then everybody starts feeling a little more hopeful and a little more encouraged.  Neighborhood by neighborhood, one block by one block, one family at a time.”

These are solutions that take decades, and the President was careful not to raise expectations too high.  But we should be equally careful not to set our expectations too low.  There are promising solutions that haven’t gotten a lot of attention in the recent dialogue that could save more than a few children from gun violence.

The least effective of these solutions are the ones currently getting the most attention – banning assault weapons and mandating background checks for gun purchases.  While I think these are commonsense laws, I have no illusions that they’re going to stop the violence in a city where most homicides are the result of handguns obtained in spite of laws already tougher than those being proposed at the federal level.

The revitalization of community policing in Chicago is a better step.  Originally introduced when the murder rate in Chicago was 900 per year rather than the current 500, this program focused on police and community working together on “problem-solving” for local hotspots.  After being mothballed in recent years, money is being allocated in Chicago for its re-implementation.  Its return is welcome.

The most effective tool we’ve got is what used to be known as CeaseFire, now a program of the organization Cure Violence.  Their model hires former gang members as “violence interrupters” – they do outreach on the streets to current gang members, and when violence heats up, they can break the cycle of retaliation that is responsible for two many killings.  It’s a program that has been funded sporadically by the state of Illinois over the years, with predictable results: when violence interrupters are hired, violence goes down.  When funding is cut, violence interrupters leave, and violence goes up.  Full funding for violence interrupters in the most violent police beats should be step one in any plan to address violence in Chicago.  It’s an effective strategy that doesn’t depend on increased incarceration of young people of color, and has the additional benefit of providing meaningful jobs for ex-offenders.

If the president is serious about saving a few lives and changing the atmosphere in our communities, then the programs that are most effective at doing that need to be at the top of the policy agenda.