Interrupting violence in Brooklyn
During the bad old days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when New York City was seething in racial tension, crime and gun violence, few neighborhoods captured the ethos of the era more than Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The neighborhood, all of about two square miles, has long been home to distinctly unique cultures and peoples who at once blend and clash, oscillating around each other, but often in conflict. Crown Heights is the heart of the city’s prominent Jewish Orthodox community, but is also home to large populations of African-American, Caribbean and Latino residents.
In 1991, riots broke out after a car in a motorcade carrying a Hasidic Jewish leader swerved onto a sidewalk, killing one black child and badly injured another. Bad feelings have lingered for decades, and as the violence of the crack-era exploded in the mid-1990s and later cooled as violent crime across the city and nation dropped dramatically, the community remains a hard-scrabble enclave wrestling with its past and patching together its future.
While the crackle of gunfire and the bloodletting of decades past have become far less frequent, community groups and outreach workers are wary of easing up their efforts to reach a demographic of young people of color who still disproportionately are the victims and perpetrators of gun crimes.
One group in particular has made interrupting the patterns of violence in the neighborhood its mission, using an innovative approach that treats gun violence as a public health issue and aims to target those most likely to suffer from it.
S.O.S Crown Heights (Save Our Streets) employs the Cure Violence method developed in Chicago during the 90s, in which so-called violence interrupters are used to build relationships with a neighborhoods most at-risk young people, keep tabs on simmering beefs and de-escalate conflicts in real time.
Nearly all of these interrupters serve as credible messengers, having criminal histories themselves, gang affiliations, affected by street violence, or spent time in prison. The unorthodox approach doesn’t call for young people or gangs to lay down their weapons or stop selling drugs; the effort is rather narrowly focused on the singular act of shootings and retaliatory violence.
The group works closely with local stakeholders, including local businesses and clergy and works largely outside of the purview of law enforcement, as trust and street cred are premiums in this type of street work.
The work has shown promise in reducing shootings and shooting victims across the country. The recent decreases in Crown Heights have been noteworthy. In recent years, the “catchment area” of S.O. S Crown Heights has seen a 40% drop in shootings, a 52% drop in shooting victims and a 40% drop in shooting fatalities.
The program has spread from Crown Heights to other tough New York City neighborhoods, including the South Bronx.
Yet as effective as the program has been at preventing violence and changing neighborhood norms, it’s still hurting for lack of funds. “One of the challenges is that as we have become more successful, one of the biggest challenges is sustaining funding for the program, since there is so much need,” said Amy Ellenbogen, the director of Crown Heights S.O.S.
Ellenbogen said the federal funding that largely supported the program is ending at the end of the month. And while the city has stepped up to help fund ongoing programs, many of the critical outreach work to youth and the clergy is threatened. She said the organization has launched a fundraising campaign with the hope of raising at least $10,000.
Amnon Gutman, a photographer who has covered conflict and crisis around the world, spent several months in 2012 chronicling the neighborhood and the efforts of S.O.S Crown Heights outreach workers. In images that document street-level life in Crown Heights, Gutman presents a portrait of a community that is at once tattered and hopeful. A little boy outlined in chalk; High-rise buildings jutting up from the skyline; the poignancy of the mundane at barbershops, local bars and smiling children cooling off in an open fire hydrant.
At the core of the photos and in the gritty heart of Gutman’s portraiture are the outreach workers themselves, often captured gathered in darkness, reaching into the lives of the young people they are trying to save.
“I have always been deeply aware of the possibility of loss. Photography empowers me to share this insight, demonstrating the horrible, equalizing moment of the possibility of loss, the universality of vulnerability,” Gutman said. “There is nothing clearer, nothing more precious than the preservation of the life force in the face of violence and disease. This is what I am attempting to articulate with my black and white images of the world.”