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​Former Gang Members Are Trying to Snuff Out Violence in New York City

Crime is up in New York City, but there seems to be a decent way of reducing gun violence that requires absolutely zero police involvement.

The opening of Gangstas Makin' Astronomical Community Changes' headquarters in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Photo by the author

If you tell Big Herc that you want to become a Blood he will stretch his palm out and kindly ask you to repeat yourself. If you are stupid enough to do it, he will slap you in the face. "You still wanna be a Blood?" he'll ask, and then keep slapping if he senses you can't make up your mind. "I want to see where your heart is," he might say.

Herc is short for Hercules, but his real name is Shamar Thomas. He's a 29-year-old former marine who did two tours in Iraq, including a stretch in Fallujah in 2004. According to Herc, it's those with weakness in their eyes—"The ones with no hearts"—who go out and commit most of the senseless shootings that kill so many people in his neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

"Those guys are just tryna get their weight up," he told me. "They think people are gonna respect them more if they hear that they shot this guy here, but that's not a real gangster."

Shanduke Mcphatter talking to Flatbush residents. Photo by Sadhbh Walshe

On Friday, Thomas and his longtime friend and boss, Shaduke Mcphatter, 36, officially cut the ribbon at the new headquarters of the anti-violence organization Gangstas Makin' Astronomical Community Changes (GMACC), in East Flatbush. This is one of the first locations to receive a chunk of the $12.7 million Mayor Bill de Blasio has devoted to deploying "violence interrupters" to troubled areas. By the end of the expansion, 15 New York City neighborhoods will have this breed of anti-violence operation. The new, " holistic" approach to combating gun violence means that six city agencies are involved, providing job training, youth programming, mediations, trauma counseling, legal services, and, of course, violence interruption.

Most important to the new(ish) model is that the people providing these services are members of the neighborhood. The city calls them "credible messengers." Think ex-gang members, the formerly incarcerated, and anyone who has enough street cred that someone reaching for a gun might actually listen. With the NYPD reporting a 20 percent spike in gun violence this year, the program could be a valuable asset that requires absolutely zero police involvement.

GMACC operates under the "Cure Violence" model for fighting gun deaths. The idea emerged from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Dr. Gary Slutkin, who had been studying tuberculosis, cholera, and AIDS epidemics in Africa when he realized that incidents of gun violence seemed to cluster geographically in a similar way. His innovation was to treat gun violence as a public health problem rather than a public safety one.

Outreach workers doing Cure Violence work try to locate the source of gun violence and stop it before it starts. They do this from the inside out. They try to spot the shooters, learn the hot spots, and constantly check in on both. Outreach workers have a caseload of up to 15 of the highest-risk community residents they are constantly checking in on. They also walk around their neighborhoods, checking in on the housing projects, barbershops, corner stores, and other locations. (The NYPD is even getting in on the action by hosting pizza parties for gang members, as MUNCHIES reported Tuesday.)

There are currently over 52 Cure Violence sites around the US, and they say their approach is proven to reduce the number of shootings in targeted areas. Man Up!, a site in East New York, set a record in 2013 when they went 367 days without a shooting in the chunk of the neighborhood they patrolled. (In 2011, East New York's 75th precinct had the most murders of any precinct in the city.)

Crown Heights saw a 6 percent decrease in shootings monthly after implementing the The Save our Streets (SOS) program, while comparison areas (with similar demographic profiles and crime statistics) saw increases between 18 and 28 percent, according to an evaluation conducted by the Center for Court Innovation. Members of SOS interrupted over 100 conflicts, affecting over 1,000 people.

Rather than reducing violence, traditional policing may actually be part of the problem in these areas, according to Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at Yale University and director of the Urban Ethnography Project.

"The cops are arbitrary. The cops are not your friends," Anderson told me. "The civil law has eroded and when the civil law erodes, street justice comes into play."

When that happens, the rule of the street is based on who can puff out their chest the most, Anderson said. This leads to a cycle in which insignificant personal "beef" is exacerbated quickly.

"People are getting killed over five dollars," Anderson said. Almost all gun violence occurs between people who know each other, according to a CDC study. Cure Violence, as an approach, recognizes this system of street justice and that seemingly minuscule scuffles are rooted in something much deeper: basic survival.

"It's like going into the DNA of a cancer and being able to disrupt it," Anderson said.

Mcphatter saw how the cancer would kill him. On the street, his name is Trife. Big Herc would never put his knee in Trife's chest, and not just because he's got huge, gym-built, pectorals and biceps bulging out of his beige sweater. (There's also the scar next to his left eye from his days gang-banging on what he calls his "reign of terror.")

Mcphatter was one of the first Bloods to hit the streets of New York in 1994. The Wyckoff Houses in Bed-Stuy are still referred to as the "Shan-koff Houses" after Mcphatter (real first name Shanduke), who used to rule the housing project, according to people who knew him from back then.

While in state prison, serving the second of his two three-year sentences, Mcphatter saw a little boy running into the jail to meet his father for the first time. He still cites this as the moment he realized he needed to break the cancerous cycle in his life and in the lives of so many of the people he knew. He did not want his kids to meet him in prison. He wanted to be a positive fixture for them. (Big Herc told me he doesn't know a single Blood who knew their father.)

So when he got out in 2008, Mcphatter and his brothers started GMACC with nothing. They just began canvassing the community and trying to stop fights from escalating. They are the only Cure Violence operation to start as a totally grassroots movement, according to Mcphatter.

Something that makes New York City's roll out of Cure Violence programs innovative is the emphasis on the hospital responder. Ledrell Johnson, 31, a violence interrupter with GMACC, was on Facebook when he saw that his 19-year-old "little buddy" was coming out of the coma he'd been in and out since being shot through his leg, arm, and shoulder. Ten surgeries and a lost lung later, the doctors were taking the tube pumping oxygen through his body out of his throat. Johnson rushed to the ER. He walked in and saw the boy's mother and sister watching as the doctors wiped blood from his neck with a paper napkin. The boy's arm was in a sling and his leg elevated in a cast.

"I'm fucked up," the boy rasped up at Johnson, who had watched him grow up.

"Yeah, you look it." Johnson said. Johnson knew who had shot the boy. He said everyone did. The boy was livid, ready to get out of the hospital and find revenge in whatever way he could.

"You lost a lung and you may have lost your pride but you still have your life."

Johnson kneeled down next to the gurney. "I understand you are angry," he recalled telling the boy. "But what do you think is gonna happen? The police already know you and now you are talking about going after your friend."

"You lost a lung and you may have lost your pride but you still have your life," Johnson said.

It worked. The boy was convinced. With three kids at the age of 19, he now has a job and is committed to taking care of them.

Jumaane Williams, the Council member for the 45th district of East Flatbush, said that the Cure Violence approach, ideally, would represent a shift in the way that we talk about inner city violence.

"If you look at someone shooting up a preschool or a movie theater, people always talk about what is going through their minds," he told me. "In inner city violence they never talk about that, they say these are animals, I think the same conversation needs to be had."

Jimmy Knight, 28, who is enrolled in a job training seminar at Man Up!, feels like the organization saved his neighborhood of East New York. He told me there are fewer people just milling around the street corners, and just less foot traffic generally. In 2012, he used to go to funerals almost every weekend, and now can't remember the last one he attended.

Samuel Lieberman is a New York City-based reporter. He covers crime, immigration, poverty and squirrels. Follow him on Twitter.