Heeding the call to stop the violence

By Meredith Dobes
Phillip Jackson, executive director of Black Star Project,
announces a Stop the Violence Campaign at a press conference.
The silver, metallic clang of the miniature gong that follows the announcement of each name infiltrates the sterile silence of the room. It rattles through the eardrums of somber-faced residents. They know what is at stake and what has been lost. None of the children whose names are called out know of this recognition they are receiving. 
         They are not here in this room, and they are not here, there, or anywhere in this mortal world -- no longer at school, at home, at work or out with friends. They will never know, never hear this ringing for them inside this small room in a building in Bronzeville because their lives were taken from them, primarily as victims of gunfire, as victims of homicide.
 “I can’t call off all the names, but can you ring it about 10 more times for the rest of the children who died here in Chicago last year?” asked Phillip Jackson, a community leader and also executive director of the Black Star Project.
Jackson is one of Chicago’s activists working to reduce the amount of violence and murder the city sees each year. Last year, alone, 506 people were murdered in Chicago. One hundred and eight of them were children. Through nearly 20 years with the Black Star Project, Jackson says he has striven to increase community and parental involvement in education and rearing children. Recently, Jackson and the Black Star Project developed, “The Community Plan to Reduce Violence in Chicago.” It is Jackson’s alternative to the city’s standing efforts to reduce violence that includes Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recently launched plan to raise $50 million to aid at-risk youth.
 “Today, we want to send a message,” Jackson said at a press conference recently. “The message is real simple. You don’t make decisions about us without us. The mayor put together a $50 million five-year plan he thinks is going to help the situation. We can’t wait for that. Every time they make a mistake, we pay for it with the blood of our children.”
Ceasefire, another organization, is also working
to stop the violence in Chicago.
Jackson outlined practices the city is currently using that he said are ineffective. Among them: increasing police patrol with high-powered weapons; incarcerating and criminalizing youth; focusing mostly on drug and gang activity; using university research to create strategies for the streets, intervening at the point of violence, having the wrong people making decisions about how to solve violence; systematically reducing youth engagement activities and opportunities like the YMCA and Jobs for Youth and providing sub-par education for children.
 “These are all the things the City of Chicago is doing,” Jackson said. “They’re literally manufacturing the violence you see in the streets. They pay $2.5 billion each year to manufacture this violence.”
As of March 25, Chicago’s business community had raised $18.5 million for the city’s plan, according to Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton. Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times in February that the plan will require businesses of the city to join together similar to the way they did for last year’s NATO summit.
“Let’s put our resources and our time into making sure our kids get on the right track and get into positive activities rather than destructive ones,” he said.
Jackson’s proposed alternative plan involves: rebuilding the family; providing positive mentors and role models for children in violence-plagued communities; providing a globally competitive education for children in violence-plagued communities; and providing positive economic alternatives to robbery, selling drugs and other illegal economic activities. Jackson’s plan, which is estimated to cost $1.9 billion, has been sent to the mayor, aldermen and other public and political figures, but he says he has yet to receive a response from any of them.
Dr. Carl Bell, a noted psychiatrist and director of the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research developed “Seven Principles to Reducing Violence and Re-Engaging Youth to Society” after years of practicing psychiatry and working with communities on Chicago’s South Side. Jackson’s plan utilizes many of his principles.
Dr. Carl Bell
 “I have known [Jackson] for too long, and my experience with him is that he is always trying to make things better for people,” Bell said.
Bell’s principles: rebuild the village/community; provide access to ancient and modern technology; provide a sense of connectedness; provide opportunities to learn social and emotional skills; provide opportunities to increase self-esteem; provide an adult protective shield; and minimize trauma.
 “People see behavior, and they don’t know what the hell it is,” Bell said. “It’s multi-determinant. It’s very confusing to people. The first thing I had to figure out was what caused it. Then I figured out how to help people help other people.”
Bell said he has been able to change public policy through his research and community efforts about seven or eight times, though most policy changes and implementations of policy take about 20 years. Bell was the director of Community Mental Health Council, recently closed by the city. 
 “I got involved in the real hard research about violence and drug prevention in ‘90,” he said. “It worked like a charm. It’s still touted as one of the best prevention plans out there. Nobody’s using it, but I was able to put it in Chicago Public Schools and show it did work,” Bell said, adding that he then took the program to some other states.
Bell’s plan contributed to the 2009 Institute of Medicine Report “Preventing Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities,” which was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare.
 “Trauma influences a lot of behavior,” Bell said. “I started with that, with children exposed to violence. As I got going, I discovered a lot of other things that influence behavior. It’s the helplessness in the face of violence that causes people to get rambunctious and engage in risky behaviors.
“If you can help them transform their traumatic helplessness into helpfulness, that’s one of the ways you transform trauma,” Bell added.
A large portion of Bell’s research on youth involves the development of the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is not fully developed until a person reaches 26 years of age.
 “I refer to children as terrorists, especially if they’re teenagers, up until age 26,” Bell said.
He relates the limbic system to gasoline and the frontal lobes to brakes and steering wheels.
 “If average people get that teens are terrorists, you can help them understand that you need a community around, adults, neighbors, to perform the brake and steering wheel function for them,” he said. Bell identified different types of violence, including group, individual, systemic and institutional. The leading cause of violence is interpersonal altercations. Still, Bell said that public policy is rarely guided by science.
 “A lot of people in government want to do their work, not cause trouble, and collect their pension,” he said. “Some people want to do something, but it’s hard, because it’s like the Titanic. It’s going in this direction and to make it turn two degrees is very difficult because a lot of the people sailing the boat are used to things the way they are.”
Jackson’s plan, largely reflective of Bell’s principles of violence prevention, faces this roadblock, both men say.
 “Unless we change our rules as a city and a country, the rules that govern our children will continue to destroy them,” Jackson said.
Bell said he might go back to treating patients while simultaneously working on the overarching problems of violence, now that he no longer has a facility to maintain.
 “I’m following the practice of medicine and public health in hopes it leads me to a position to help a whole lot of people still,” he said. “People didn’t really know how to change behavior. That’s why it’s so important for me to get involved with violence prevention.”
“I sometimes tell people the joke about two vultures sitting on a limb, and the one vulture turns and says to the other, ‘Patience, my ass. I’mma kill something,’” Bell explained. “I get like that sometimes, but I try to stay calm. I know what to do, but nobody’s doing it. Those are my frustrations and difficulties.”
Bell goes back to his work. Jackson goes back to his. Chicago and Emanuel continue their same efforts. And this year’s murder count continues to rise. And at Black Star Project’s press conference on that cold February evening, the community residents who attended bowed their heads as the deceased children’s names resounded across the room.