As rain began to whip across a bustling street corner in the South Bronx earlier this week, Gilly Delgado pulled his knit hat low over his brow and shoved a hand deep inside his coat pocket. He took a step from the corner and sneered at the police officer who’d been watching him from across the street. He threw another look at a group of young men in hoods—one with a blood-red bandana dangling from his back pocket—who were marching up the block.
The group got closer. And Delgado reached deeper into his coat.
“This is my corner,” Delgado said low, stepping in the boys’ direction.
As soon as the group got within arm’s reach and earshot, Delgado pulled his hand from his pocket and jammed a button and pamphlet at them.
“Save our streets and stop gun violence,” Delgado said. The boys glared for a moment before taking the stuff and bopping around the corner.
“It’s like the crack game,” Delgado said slyly. “But I’m out here hustling peace.”
Delgado is a member of a months-old organization in the South Bronx whose name, S.O.S, is an acronym for Save Our Streets, an outgrowth of a Brooklyn group that goes by the same name. And its members are as unorthodox as the anti-violence methods it employs. Nearly all of them have criminal histories, have previous gang ties or have been affected by street violence in some significant way.
Its methods are modeled after the CureViolence approach founded in the mid-90s in Chicago, in which gun violence is attacked using public health principles—that is, dealing with shootings as you might an infectious disease like HIV. Hone in on the most infected, and those most likely to become infected, and treat them so that the infection doesn't spread. By treating high risk individuals—a neighborhood’s shooters or prospective shooters—and de-escalating conflicts in real time, "violence interrupters" aim to break the links that often lead to shootings and retaliatory violence. The group operates outside of the purview of police (street cred and trust are critical). They don’t ask that people drop their gangs, to altogether stop selling drugs, or to even get rid of their guns. Instead, they focus rather narrowly on the singular act of shooting.
“This is a scientific approach that takes a look at violence as an epidemic process and epidemic behaviors. We use a scientific method more than a moralist method. It uses violence interruption and other work to change norms,” said Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and physician who founded CeaseFire, now called CureViolence, in 1995 while working at the World Health Organization. "Just like when you do TB control or AIDS control. It’s the same system.”
According to a recent NYPD report, the vast majority of the city’s killings are committed out of revenge or retribution for some sort of dispute. A staggering 38% of the 515 homicides in 2011 were revenge killings, according to police, compared to the 12% that were classified as being drug-related. And more than 60% of those victims were killed by guns.
Organizers say the space between initial disputes and retaliation is where S.O.S has been most effective. By building and maintaining relationships on the street, violence interrupters are often tipped off about who has beef with who and how close conflicts are to boiling over into violence. Street workers are then able to do what few others have taken the time to do with the most volatile individuals: Talk to them.
“In our communities they don’t send the trauma units,” said Hakiem Yahmadi, program manager for S.O.S South Bronx. Yahmadi’s own son was shot and killed by a gang member just a few blocks from the group's Willis Avenue headquarters in 2001. Another son joined a rival gang in response to his older brother's killing. “We’ve got young kids out here fending for themselves and they’re angry," Yahmadi said. "You’ve got to be honest with them. You’ve got to talk to them. That village system, we got away from it.”
Outreach workers share their war stories, tales of dead friends and family and the misery of prison life. And lingering regret. "We approach them straight up and we don't sugarcoat anything," said Kenneth Edwards, a veteran violence interrupter and hospital responder with S.O.S in Brooklyn. In 1990, when Edwards was 17, he shot and killed a longtime friend during a dispute over a $25 debt. He served 17 years in prison, and has yet to make peace with his decision to pull that trigger. He uses his own torment to persuade others that violence and murder aren't worth the long-term costs.
"I took a young man's life," Edwards said. "It's hard for me to forgive myself. I tell them, once you pull that trigger, the devastation you're going to cause in that victim's family, with your family, within yourself, it spreads. It doesn't just stop with you and that victim."
Edwards' first incident as a responder was during the funeral of a 14 year old who'd been gunned down by a rival gang. Dozens of his friends stormed out of the church, vowing to take revenge. They wanted guns. They wanted blood. But interrupters followed the group to a nearby park and demanded that they go back into the church to look at that boy's body and the anguish on his mother's face.
Do you want that to be your mother crying over your body? Do you want it to be you in that casket next?
In those moments, the grim reality set in for the group, Edwards said.
“Some kids don't want to hear anything and walk away, but if you get them for five minutes you better make them the best five minutes of their life.”
You can't fake the funk
CureViolence founder Slutkin says that by going after the most infected individuals, you can stop the disease of gun violence from spreading. Studies of the CureViolence model by Johns Hopkins University and the Department of Justice have shown success, with retaliatory shootings cut by as much as 100% in some Chicago neighborhoods and deep decreases in violence in cities across the country including Baltimore and Philadelphia. Slutkin said the model is being used in about 20 cities and a number of communities abroad. In Puerto Rico the model has led to a drop in killings by 55% in its first 10 months, Slutkin said. And in Baltimore neighborhoods there’s been a decrease in violence of between 30% and 50%.
Still, the approach has critics. One violent-crime researcher in Chicago who spoke on background and on the condition of anonymity said there have been various issues in the way the model has been implemented in Chicago. While part of the model’s core principles is the use of credible messengers, some have criticized the use of former criminals (who may still be dabbling in the underworld) on peacekeeping missions. Some folks on the ground, the researcher said, are concerned with whether or not the CureViolence interrupters are playing it straight, and that the group may have made it harder for the police to build trust in the community.
Indeed, one S.O.S South Bronx worker said that she and her colleagues are doing what the cops can’t or won’t do. “If the people see us out here talking to the police, you really think they’re going to want to talk to us?” she asked. “It’s already hard getting to them now, they already thinking we’re working with them. I ain’t giving the police no high fives. It ruins our credibility.”
As the nation takes up a renewed debate over gun laws, S.O.S hopes to chip away at the stubborn, entrenched culture of violence and conflict in the Bronx.
Violent crime and homicide rates are falling across the country, including in New York City, which last year logged the fewest killings since reliable tallies have been recorded. Most of the city’s shootings and killings are concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods, communities which are poor and disadvantaged in terms of employment, healthcare and education.
S.O.S South Bronx launched officially in December with the help of a $500,000 grant from the New York City Council. They’ve hired about seven paid staff members and are looking to hire a few more. Since they've been in the neighborhood, there hasn't been a shooting in 65 days as of Thursday. Their 20-block operating area extends from St. Anns Ave on the West to Union Ave on the East, and 147th Street north to East 156th Street. Those 20 blocks include about 20,000 residents, a number of public schools and a concentration of four major public housing complexes whose tenants often feud with each other, sometimes violently.
“You can’t fake the funk out here. You either know the streets or you don’t know the streets,” said Sharon Ife Charles, the citywide anti-violence coordinator for the Center for Court Innovation, the parent organization of the S.O.S projects. “The reality is our young people need to hear others talk about their experiences and that’s what this is about. Because we might not reach this one or that one, but we might reach a shooter.” She relies on her “credible messengers,” as she calls them, to penetrate an often neglected population that can be suspicious of authority and hardened by constant violence. “We realize that so many people in this community have experienced gun violence, it has become a norm for them,” Charles said. “Folks have become desensitized, so unless somebody in your immediate family or a close friend gets shot or killed, people will say, 'oh, that always happens.' A shooting ain’t nothing anymore.”
It’s too early to tell what longterm impact the group will have in the South Bronx, which is situated in the poorest congressional district in the country. But the Bronx chapter's sister group in Brooklyn, launched three years ago, saw immediate violence reductions. In its first year S.O.S Crown Heights saw a decrease in shootings from 75 before they started their outreach and mediation work to just 15 the following year.
They know I was one of them
On Wednesday, like most other days, Delgado and his comrades fanned out from corner to corner, talking-up the young and sullen, the so-called thugs or those likely pretending to be. They give handshakes and hugs to the familiar, and sidle up close to the unfamiliar, introducing their group and their mission to save the community from itself.
They march along the tattered blocks and public housing courtyards looking for tensions to defuse. They identify and undermine revenge plots. (There's a lot to untangle. On a recent afternoon they brokered a truce between two rivals, one who’d recently shot the other, who for weeks had to use a catheter bag, by sorting out that the two were actually in the same gang. The shooter had fired aimlessly into a crowd that day as payback for another, earlier shooting in which guys from the victim's neighborhood were suspected.) And they give special attention to the neighborhood shooters or those at risk of becoming shooters, and offer them an ear and encouragement, connecting them with vital resources like job training, GED programs or help them get back in school.
“I see them beefing and I say, let me holler at you. Lets try to figure this out because we have to live here together. I can usually get them to talk it out,” said Gilly Delgado, who was born and raised in the Bronx, and conceded to being part of the problem in his past life. “My credibility from the street, they know that I was one of them at one point in my life,” Delgado said. “I was a street dude, a street-street dude. My cup of tea was never selling drugs. But I was the dude who, if you owe you got to pay. You don’t want to see the Cuco come, the boogey man. You didn’t want to see me. They see little Gilly coming for them, that’s the boogey man.”
He was an enforcer, he said, and more than once had to put “steel” to flesh. “I was a bad boy to bad people,” Delgado said. “I wouldn’t do nothing to a civilian, but if you trying to be thuggin’ and bangin’, you were my prey, especially if you’re a bully. I was like, don’t take advantage of anybody else. Come take advantage of me. Come see me.”
Despite his bad behavior, Delgado said he never served any time in prison, just a few years in a court mandated school diversion program in Vermont after stabbing a bully when he was 12 years old.
Now, he said, it’s time to give back and clean up the culture he helped to muddy for years with violence and mayhem.
So he troops through his old stomping ground, pulling out pamphlets rather than pistols. He regales the youth, who often want nothing more than a job and a straight way, with war stories and how he put his life in constant peril.
“[S.O.S] gives me a foundation where I can actually help people,” he said. “I’m like a soldier in God’s Army. I know God has a bigger plan. And I know there’s a war, good and evil, and I want to be on the good side."