Marcus McAllister, an international trainer with Cure Violence, spent a week speaking with community members and public officials about bringing the group’s violence prevention model to St. Louis.
But at the end of that week, his tone changed and his posture relaxed when he sat down with some of his own — people out doing “the work” in the city’s toughest streets.
On Friday, June 21, McAllister took a seat at a long conference table with about 15 men and women “soldiers” at the North St. Louis social-service organization Better Family Life Inc. (BFL).
These are people who are in the streets, on front porches, and in the living rooms — in some of the highest-crime areas in North St. Louis, working to mediate gun violence. At the head of the table sat James Clark, vice president community outreach at BFL.
“We have trust in their credibility and their ability to deliver,” Clark told his team, regarding Cure Violence.
McAllister was not a stranger at the table. At the other end sat McAllister’s long-time friend “Big Steve,” or Steve Banks, one of BFL’s community outreach specialists.
“If you all don’t know, in the hierarchy of Chicago, this brother is super official,” McAllister said about Banks. “That’s real talk. He’s not ashamed of his background. The fact that he’s at the table now is humbling.”
“Big Steve” was a “security” back in the day, but now Banks is like almost every person who works for Cure Violence. It’s a program that started in Chicago, but now has 65 sites in 25 cities, many of which McAllister helped to establish.
“We hire a lot of F.I.P.s — formerly incarcerated professionals,” McAllister said. “About 90 percent of our work staff has been in jail; they are ex-gang members. They’re ex-everything but they changed their lives. We are not interested in how we can do Cure Violence with college kids. I’m not knocking social workers or those in the room with degrees. I respect you. But the work we do is tailor-made for the guys in the streets who don’t get a shot. I fell in love with this work not because we were able to save lives. I fell in love with this work because it saved the staff’s lives.”
It’s this work that saved McAllister’s life as well, he said. He grew up in a Blood neighborhood in San Diego, and at 18 he got caught up in the gang and ended up serving 10 years in federal prison. He then spent time in both St. Louis and Chicago, and his mom still lives in Alton, Illinois. After he got out of prison, he tried starting up a national magazine called Exposure that highlighted African American businesses — and it’s base was in St. Louis.
“I wanted the magazine to succeed so much that I stepped my foot back in the streets, even though I said I would never do that,” he said. “I almost went back to the penitentiary. I’m not proud to say I sold a lot of dope in this city.”
When his daughter was born, he wanted to change his life. A woman told him about a new program in Chicago called CeaseFire, now Cure Violence, where he could use his background for good. Cure Violence was founded in 2000 by Gary Slutkin, M.D., former head of the World Health Organization’s Intervention Development Unit and professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the University of Illinois/Chicago School of Public Health.
McAllister started out as a violence interrupter, where he was able to use his influence to “talk people down” and keep people from killing each other. He moved through the ranks and became a trainer. Now he travels all over the world — including the West Bank, Trinidad, South Africa and Belize — and sits down with people just like those at Better Family Life, he said. For example, Baltimore has four sites, and it’s now expanding to 10, he said. There he trained the “real life Avon Barksdale,” a character on the TV series “The Wire” (series creator David Simon has said Barksdale is a composite of actual people).
“We are really big on hiring people who have a tremendous credibility in the neighborhoods,” McAllister said. “We probably got the biggest ‘hood pass in America bar none.”
In Baltimore, four communities saw a 56 percent reduction in killings and a 34 percent reduction in shootings after the Cure Violence model was implemented, according to an evaluation completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and John Hopkins University in 2012.
Cure Violence is a results-based approach that treats violence as a public health issue. According to the group’s literature, “Science has shown that violence is contagious and can be treated successfully as an infectious disease. Communities that have adopted a health approach to violence prevention have seen up to 70 percent reductions in shootings and killings worldwide.”
Like Better Family Life, Cure Violence provides support and help in situations that could result in violence and then helps to get both sides of the conflict connected with job opportunities and social services. McAllister said Better Family Life was a “step ahead” because it had many of those social services in house.
Cure Violence has the best training in the world for violence interruption, McAllister said, and Better Family Life staff talked about attending its annual conference to learn about what other cities are doing.
Funding Cure Violence
This is not the first time McAllister has come to St. Louis.
About seven or eight years ago, he was brought to town by a gun-violence reduction committee, formed through the United Way and Washington University. Clark regularly attended the meetings and continually pushed the committee to stop studying the issue and get out in the streets, Clark said. McAllister was brought in to appease those who shared this concern.
But the funding for Cure Violence never surfaced back then. So instead, Clark took some tips from the organization and applied them to the work Better Family Life had been doing. Now Better Family Life has four gun violence de-escalation centers. However in November, Clark told The American that in order for them to keep up with the number of calls they receive, they need to “scale up.”
This year, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed has been supporting the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression in trying to bring Cure Violence to St. Louis. In the city’s budget that is set to be approved on June 30, $500,000 has been earmarked for such an effort. However, it’s been a fight to keep that allocation in the budget.
“I don’t know how this is going to play out,” McAllister said. “It could be a mirage. I could be here again in another seven years.”
John Chasnoff, co-founder of CAPCR, is hoping that won’t be the case because the model is needed.
“It is clear the reactive arrest-and-incarcerate model of public safety has failed,” Chasnoff said. “Cure Violence has been able to show rapid and sustained reductions in gun violence wherever it has been properly funded.”
Clark said that BFL welcomes the program coming to St. Louis and the opportunity to network nationally with other people doing the work, because they have to be just as strongly connected as the network of crime that they are fighting to change.
“We got to look at it in the same way,” Clark said. “You have to have partners all over the country. They serve death, we serve life. But it’s the same thing. We have to look at the best applied practices and go with it. So let’s learn. Let's share.”
For more information on Cure Violence, visit http://cureviolence.org/.