BY Aqueela Sherrills | Word In Black

Aqueela Sherrills speaking about community violence intervention. Credit: Photo courtesy of Aqueela Sherrills

(WIB) – In 1989, I lost 13 friends to the gang war raging through Los Angeles. When I say war, I mean war!  

Between 1983 and 2003, there were over 20,000 gang-related deaths in L.A. County and that number didn’t include those permanently maimed or incarcerated for the rest of their lives due to their participation.  

Both kids and parents suffered from traumatic stress, hypervigilance, and vicarious trauma. I never questioned the violence I witnessed growing up in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts because ultimately, I would have to question the violence I experienced in my own home — I just didn’t have the language to articulate why this was happening or the courage to confront the perpetrators.  

I decided that I had to do something to stop the killing.

After having a transformative experience, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and James Baldwin’s “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” I felt moved to do something about the violence in my neighborhood and I decided that I had to do something to stop the killing. 

Starting with my brother Daude and a group of friends from Jordan Downs, we began marching into the four major housing projects in Watts speaking with our formal rivals, asking the question, “Who’s winning the war we are waging against ourselves?.     

The nationwide surge in violent crime we’ve seen over the past two years may have been prompted by the unique circumstances of the pandemic, but its setting is nothing new. 

Violence has been “spiking” in these same communities for the past three decades. The criminal legal solutions have been ineffective and have only exacerbated the problem. Taking a public health approach to violence is the obvious solution.   

The public health framework says that those who are closest in proximity to the disease, need to be equipped with the tools, skills, and resources to intervene, prevent, and treat violence as a public health issue. Although I was not aware of the public health model in the late ’80s when we started our efforts to organize the peace treaty, we intuitively understood that nobody could stop this war but us.

The mounting death toll in Watts during the ‘80s drew little response from outside our community. Law enforcement was deeply invested in the problem because they justified their budget based upon how much violence was happening in the community. One officer told me that it would be a cold day in hell before he would ever support a “peace treaty.” He stated that he made $60K per year as a base salary, but made another $70K in overtime. This was alarming.  

After hosting a meeting with key individuals from across the city in which we discussed a cease-fire amongst rival individuals and neighborhoods,  I was introduced to Hall of Fame football great Jim Brown.   

With Jim, we co-created the Amer-I-Can program, a human development curriculum that covered everything from dealing with anger to managing finances. We began Facilitating the 60-hour life management skills  program throughout the neighborhood — building a common language that became the foundation for the 1992 peace treaty between the Crips and the Bloods in Watts. 

Shortly after ​​we finalized the peace treaty, the Rodney King verdict was announced, and the L.A. Civil Unrest began. Even as violence and chaos ripped through the city, the Watts Crips and the Bloods upheld the terms of their agreement — and in the two years that followed, gang homicides in the neighborhood dropped by 44%. 

Simply sending more police into these neighborhoods isn’t going to fix the problem — if that approach worked alone, then this conversation would have ended long ago. 

Today, the 1992 Watts treaty’s legacy lives on. I’ve traveled to Northern Ireland and Cape Town, South Africa, educating community members and dignitaries on the importance of community-led strategies. For years, people have defined our work as “gang Intervention” or “credible messengers.” They’ve called us “interrupters” and “outreach workers”. Those are all components of the system we’ve developed to make our neighborhoods safe. 

In March 2021, a key practitioner and thought leader in the movement convened and defined our work as Community Base Public Safety, or what the White House now calls community violence intervention — CVI for short. 

At the most basic level, CVI is a strategy that relies on skilled practitioners to prevent disputes from escalating into violence by offering opportunities to communicate, work toward resolution, and cultivate true wellness and safety. 

CVI programs hire, train, and entrust residents — mostly nontraditional leaders, such as ex-gang members, ex-convicts, and other folks who were on the frontlines of violent crime and have since transformed their lives — to be the solution to violence in their community. And with shootings on the rise in cities across the country, CVI is a proven solution to stemming gun violence. 

Simply sending more police into these neighborhoods isn’t going to fix the problem — if that approach worked alone, then this conversation would have ended long ago. 

CVI is intended to work in tandem with traditional law enforcement, not replace it. Police officers’ role is to enforce laws, to protect and serve. We, however, are far more equipped to do the community-based work that creates sustainable, long-term public safety. CVI practitioners have the skills, tools, experience, and personal connections to implement the intervention, prevention, and treatment required to get at the root causes of violence in neighborhoods where it is entrenched. 

We need to recruit, train, support, and compensate residents who understand their community and are committed to the day-to-day work of anticipating and meeting its needs.

Shootings rarely happen at random. In 2017, we did a study in Newark, New Jersey and discovered that 62% of homicides in 2016 started as interpersonal conflicts.  Violence is about proximity.  

This is why CVI practitioners focus so much of their efforts on the highly dangerous work of de-escalating a conflict and quelling hostilities in the hours, days, and weeks that precede what might otherwise become a tragedy — or to ensure that a close call doesn’t become another emergency down the road. Outreach workers identify, monitor, and offer resources to community members most at risk for violence. Mentors keep people from becoming at-risk in the first place. And if push comes to shove, they can de-escalate a conflict in the moments just before someone reaches for a gun. 

When it comes to addressing gun violence, we need to recruit, train, support, and compensate residents who understand their community and are committed to the day-to-day work of anticipating and meeting its needs. Through CVI, we can put the “public” back in public safety, just like we did in Watts 30 years ago, and work to cultivate genuine wellbeing in our communities nationwide.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.