Laura Ofobike

As 2011 was drawing to a close, the Beacon Journal published an article, “December spree skews Akron’s homicide rate,” written by staff writer Phil Trexler. During a five-day period that month, there had been nine shootings in the city, resulting in six homicides. A seventh person was killed Christmas night, bringing the homicide count in Akron to 26 — four more than in 2010.

The article noted also that 20 of the 26 victims were African-American. That until the December shootings, detectives had solved 67 percent of the year’s homicides. That the remaining unsolved killings in 2011, as in 2010, involved African-American victims.

Meanwhile, unrelated to the summary of a violent year, are the memories of a gang fight and a shootout that killed an unfortunate young woman outside The Cage nightclub in 2007, memories of one prosecution after another fizzling at trial over the four years. And the silence that succeeds in encasing families and friends in grief.

What to make of all that in the search for peace and safety in Akron?

We know better, of course, than to indulge in false comfort, the sense that the deadly violence is just one of those neighborhood things — you know, the assumption that you’ll do just fine if you know where not to go, where not to do business, whom to watch.

But violence is creepy. Awareness of it creeps into the mind. It makes people fearful, and discomfort tends to warp judgment. If you don’t think so, consider some of the policies that have made jails and prisons a sinkhole for public funds in the past 25 years or so, even when we know that the vast majority of us will not be mugged, raped, robbed at gunpoint or shot to death.

Yes, as a community of residents, we all bear the scars of violence. But as data such as those above show, at home here in Akron, the burden of violence — the pain of lost and wasted lives, the endless ache from unresolved homicides and serious crime — falls heavy on African-American neighborhoods, where the perpetrators and victims, more often than not are black and young and male. Yes, it is true that violence is not, never has been and never will be, an issue of race. Yes, the roots of violence run a mile deep — unequal opportunities, unemployment, poverty, official discrimination and indifference, broken homes, anger and hopelessness. …

National surveys indicate violent crime rates continue to drop across the country. Akron is not an exception to the trend. Still, where we are now is painful, when communities despair because many more young men hardly blink at killing and don’t seem to understand they are laying waste the families and the neighborhoods that are their inheritance.

How do we take some of the responsibility, as residents in this city, to break the spiral of fatal violence? What more can we do, along with such activities as block watches and police tip lines? Where do we look for help?

On Saturday morning, Lt. Charles Brown of the Akron Police Department and the Save a Life project presented a screening of the documentary film The Interrupters as one potential route. (Watch a version of the documentary at http://interrupters.kartemquin.com).

The film chronicles the work of CeaseFire, a violence-reduction organization dedicated to “interrupting” the transmission of violence in some of Chicago’s troubled black and Latino neighborhoods. The approach of CeaseFire, founded by Gary Slutnik, physician and professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois, is based on his experiences studying the spread and control of infectious diseases.

Slutnik applies the disease model to violence. He perceives violence as a disease that demands the same data-based, proven strategies used in the public health field to break (interrupt) the pattern of transmission. In many crime-ridden neighborhoods, he argues, violence “is the disease [people] expect to die of.” It is possible to interrupt the progression of violence, which he sees as a learned behavior, by facilitating behavior change. The Interrupters, who themselves have “street creds” with their own histories of crime and violence, are from the neighborhoods. They are trained to anticipate and respond to threatening situations, build relationships to head off conflicts and help people through the aftermath of criminal experiences.

In effect, the Interrupters stand in the breach in communities where there is little trust of law enforcement and the justice system, where the police and other authority figures often are perceived as the enemy “out to get us,” where neighbors close ranks in silence and mete out justice on their own terms. From what I saw of the three Interrupters in the documentary, they are missionaries of a kind, working out their own redemption by getting back on the streets, this time to give strength to communities struggling through an infection of violence

Ofobike is Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-99-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com.