Organization visits Grand Rapids to assess potential epidemic of violence



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

People commonly refer to an “epidemic of violence,” but Cure Violence wants to frame the elimination of community violence in the same terms: as eliminating a disease.

The organization says on its web page, “We intend to fundamentally change the discourse on and approach to violence from the prevailing paradigm that understands violence as moral corruption or human failing that applies punitive strategies to address the issue, to one that includes an understanding and addressing of violence as a health problem – a contagious epidemic.”

Now Cure Violence is conducting an assessment in Grand Rapids, and recently held a series of meetings with local leaders, along with two public workshops Dec. 10 and 12.

At the Dec. 12 session, at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, about 35 people heard Cure Violence’s National Community Coordinator Marcus McAllister talk about the organization’s unique approach, presenting a couple of brief video clips.

“Violence is a disease and this is the cure – let’s make the cure contagious,”?said McAllister, who was incarcerated himself at the age of 18. “We know Grand Rapids is not the south side of Chicago, but this can help in any city, and we need to map things out.” Cure Violence operates in 50 communities in the U.S. and several others across the globe.

Founded in 2000 by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, who formerly fought contagious disease in Africa for the World Health Organization, the organization incorporated successful techniques from both street crime fighters and the principles of public health contagion prevention to interrupt the cycle of retribution and related killings. Cure Violence, called CeaseFire at the time, was very successful in its first venture on the South Side of Chicago, reducing killings 67% in the first year, with slightly less spectacular but nonetheless significant results in subsequent years.

McAllister emphasized that the real work of curing violence is done by community members, who are paid to be what they call “interrupters.” Cure Violence comes in and trains these interrupters to do the job, which requires in-depth knowledge of a local culture.

In fact, in 2011 Director Steve James, known for Hoop Dreams, and Producer Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, made the award-winning film The Interrupters about the project, emphasizing the work of those on the ground who know the community best. “The people in the community have a sense of who the credible messengers are,” McAllister explained.

Commissioners Joe Jones and Ruth Kelly have been credited with moving the partnership forward, though Mayor Rosalynn Bliss is supportive and the commissioners voted unanimously to contract with Cure Violence on the assessment. Kelly spoke on a panel  at a 2013 Grand Rapids screening of The Interrupters.

She was also present at the Kroc Center event, and said she hopes that the city will not just shelve the report from the assessment phase, but will continue the process with real results.

Cure Violence’s Director of Science and Policy, Charlie Ransford, works out of Grand Rapids and spoke briefly at the Dec. 12 event. Ransford is the son-in-law of attorney  Jack Hoffman of Kuiper Kraemer.

In response to a question from the audience about police brutality, Ransford said, “Doing the work also changes the culture of the neighborhood. During Cure Violence’s work in the South Bronx, John Jay College [of Criminal Justice] did an evaluation, and they found that the relationship between community members and police got better organically.”