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.”
Recently, 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.
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