Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Gary Slutkin, epidemiologist, who- after working for years
trying to control multiple epidemics in Africa – returned to the U.S. and eventually founded Cure Violence,
an NGO that attempts to treat violence like an infectious disease.
Paul Ingles: Let’s review some of the components that led you to this model of treating violence like you’ve treated infectious diseases. I understand that studying maps and graphs of shootings and violence attacks was a first big clue. Tell me more about that part of it.
Gary Slutkin: That is really what made me feel that I was seeing something familiar when I was looking at the maps and charts and graphs of violence in the U.S. cities. They were appearing to me just as the same types of maps and figures and graphs that I had been viewing so many years looking at the spread of cholera, the spread of TB or AIDS. It was the same type of clustering, the same type of wave forms, so it seemed familiar. I was a little surprised by that actually.
Ingles: With those maps and graphs looking so familiar, tell me about how you began to frame the treatment plan around the pillars used to treat infectious diseases. You added components that maybe intuitively people wouldn’t think would work on limiting violence.
Slutkin: Well, besides the figures and the maps, we were doing a lot of other research as to what had worked and to try to figure out some of the characteristics of violence in populations.
There was this one other piece of the puzzle which was when asking what is the greatest predictor of a violent event, the answer was a preceding violent event and that was kind of like really hitting the nail on the head because that’s also exactly the situation with flu, with TB or colds even.
So it became clear that we would have to be doing something that interrupts that transmission or that spread or that contagion that we would have to get more in there to prevent one event leading to another and also to try to find out when an event might happen to try to, in a way, cut it off. That’s where the violence interrupter piece came in.
Ingles: That’s the most intriguing part of it I think for most of us looking at it. It seems that the most intriguing, challenging, crucial and, in some cases, controversial step was to craft this plan for violence interrupters. In this model, real people are stepping into the middle of the epidemic of violence and breaking the pattern of passing the disease onward.
I’m curious; what did those early brainstorming sessions sound like as your team developed this plan, particularly with regard to the interrupters?
Slutkin: Well, let me say that this did not go fast. It really took us five years to do a design. In other words, we went into a design lab mode in a way of exploring what would be feasible, what had been tried before and what would have high impact. It was a lot of conversations with people on the street while having simultaneous conversations with researchers who had tried various things.
Ingles: I’m imagining that in those many meetings that you had, even on your own staff, but certainly when you connect with neighborhood people, there was quite a bit of skepticism, quite a bit of saying, man, you just don’t understand what is going to work and what you’re dealing with here. Do you remember those kinds of conversations?
Slutkin: Oh my god, yeah! In fact, it’s still going on. We were told all kinds of things that were needed to be done in order to reduce violence. You’re going to have improve the schools, improve education, get the families to come back together again, get rid of the poverty. There were all those kinds of conversations and then there was a whole other set of conversations having to do with guns. “You’re not going to succeed unless you …” fill in the blank with all these predisposed ideas.
Then of course there is a whole other realm of really needing to teach people lessons, really needing to crack down more.
All of the existing beliefs were not thrown away or given up nor have they even to this day.
Ingles: Dr. Gary Slutkin, let’s talk about the interrupters. Just like in an epidemic, you hire people with special skills to reach the population with information and messages that could change behaviors and stop the chain of disease, of violence in this case, from continuing and stop the disease from spreading. What skills for disease interrupters are common to all infectious disease work? What were specialized to this disease of the spread of violence would you say?
Slutkin: That’s a great question. Ebola is an interesting cousin to this problem, but in a way, so is HIV/AIDS and others.
The most important thing is who is selected as workers so that the people who they’re talking to trust them so that they can have access to people in their homes, on the streets rather than running away from these people. These are people who they already know and see them as part of their same peer group and they trust them and they also know that they are talking to them in their own interest. So if you have someone who is working on violence, you want to have people who come from the same subgroups even, not just the same groups, they were in the same cliques or in the same gangs or walked the same streets. Some of them were even cousins or they know a lot of the people, so they are able to find out what happened at the party last night or who is upset about something.
In Ebola, these were people who were neighbors who were able to talk to people about it not being a good idea to be kissing and hugging your mom even though she’s dying and she’s your mom or even in burial. That’s a very hard thing to talk about. It has to come from people who are really trusted by the people who you’re talking with.
The first part of this is the selection of the health workers who are out there. What it is that you’re training them in has to do with the behaviors that need to be changed.
For Ebola, like I just mentioned, not touching people who are sick. For HIV, you actually can’t know who is infected and if you don’t know, you really should use a condom or [abstain].
For violence, it’s really helping to cool somebody down when they’re angry and able to buy time and then helping them to see it differently and to get socially, in a way, what we call “off the hook” so they feel like they’re still cool even though they didn’t do it.
Ingles: You call them “credible messengers” and you’ve talked about the fact that they have to be trained in persuasion, buying time and reframing things that I gather that they are trained up in in the program, but they also have to have some natural skills for those things, but often times, these folks are people who have dabbled in crime and violence; ex-gang-bangers or small time drug dealers or more in some cases who have made a commitment to turn their lives around, but it’s a very delicate balance of high level skill and street experience often isn’t it?
Slutkin: You said it right. It’s a delicate balance, but this is the world of epidemic control and the world of behavior change. It’s actually the world of health.
We hire people who used to be involved in sex work to reach people who are now involved with sex work. We use people who were using drugs if we’re talking about changing drug use behaviors, but likewise, we use refugees to reach refugees and moms to reach moms.
The fact that we’re using workers who were previously involved in possibly violent situations themselves, it’s not to do them a favor, it’s really the way the technology works, it’s the way behavior change is really affected. It requires that the person who is trying to help you is someone you trust and he is giving it to you (and you can see this) because it’s really in your interest. He gets who you are and where you’re coming from, how upset you are, what your thinking is, he talks the way you do and he makes sense to you.
Ingles: There was a documentary produced on this program back in 2011 as it was rolling out in Chicago by filmmaker Steve James. A lot of folks know him from his documentary Hoop Dreams where you really see the challenges of the interrupters going into these hot zones of violence and trying to apply all these tools of patience and empathy and listening and logic to people who, in some cases are just hopping mad. They’ve just had a family member killed or arrested.
The one scene with an agitated young man named Flamo who is streaming profanity (we might be able to play a tiny bit of that scene). At one point he says to the fellows who are working with him; what can you do for me? You’re going to take me out to lunch and we’re going to talk it out? The workers calmly say, “Yes, that’s right.” “When are we going to do that?” “Right now.” He says, “Let me put my gun up.” They eventually head out. I’m not sure what happens after that, but these are scary moments. They’re going in with no tools of violence with them. These interrupters are trying to make peace.
You’ve seen these films and heard these stories. How do you feel when you hear and see them actually taking place and what makes you confident that it’s still the right approach?
Slutkin: Well, the confidence comes from the Cure Violence methods and the tremendous demand primarily because it’s saving mayor’s money, it’s saving tax payers money and it’s making neighborhoods safer.
Some of the stories are shown in the film Interrupters and the stories, one after another, are amazing, but stories of the work of Emergency Medical Technicians that go in and save someone’s life when they’re not breathing and just lying there, they know what to do. That’s the whole thing; these workers are very, very highly skilled.
The scene you’re talking about with Kobe interacting with Flamo in the film about Cure Violence called The Interrupters, Kobe has been in that situation hundreds of times and so it may look like he’s ad hoc and kind of winging it, but he can analyze it. Okay, he’s hot, but he’s not doing this and that, I’m just going to keep him talking and validate what he has to say. This isn’t the first time Kobe is meeting Flamo, they know each other. Kobe was sent because he is someone who Flamo already knows. They can swear and yell, but Kobe isn’t at risk.
Ingles: In the film, I believe Flamo actually calls Kobe and says, “This is going down,” suggesting that he needs or wants the help in a way.
Slutkin: Yes, that’s common. People care about themselves, they also call about their friends; “My friend is about to do an armed robbery. He’s crazy.” They don’t want to see their friend do this because they’re afraid he’s going to get hurt or he’s going to have to go to prison or something. He’s only just come out. So they call us.
Moms call us. There is a mom whose son was loading up weapons downstairs in the basement with friends, she doesn’t want to call law enforcement on her son, but she’ll call us.
Many of the neighborhoods will know the Cure Violence workers because we put our phone numbers out there and we’ve met them all. They will call when they need help.
Flamo needed help, not just about what he was going to do, his situation was a mess. I don’t know if his brother or a couple of his brothers were also arrested, his mom was mishandled, mistreated. He was a mess. His family situation at the moment had really been disturbed and he was like, “What do I do?” We can help him without him making it worse, making bad choices.
Ingles: Choice seems to be the keyword there. All of a sudden people are in desperate situations where they observe or feel themselves leaning towards violence. There is an option that’s known in the community that wasn’t there months or years ago.
Slutkin: That’s right. What we’ve done is filled a gap and it turned out to be an important gap. It’s someone the people in the community can trust who can talk them down and prevent events from happening.
Ingles: Gary Slutkin, what were the earliest results of trying this approach?
Slutkin: Well, the first time that we put what we now call the “Cure Violence approach” into a neighborhood was in West Garfield Park on the West Side of Chicago which, at the time, was the worst police district for killings in the country and there was a drop of 67%. This was in the year 2000 and it dropped from 43 shootings and killings to 14 and it happened really fast. There was a 90 day period without any shootings and then there was one and then another 90 day period. It was an immediate effect. This is what the researchers have been finding over and over, there’s an immediate effect. It’s highly impactful and immediate and sustained. There was a 67% drop.
Our funders [thought] it might be a fluke, but then we did it again and got a 45% drop with a slightly lesser amount of intervention over the next four communities.
Then it was put into Chicago in a larger way and the city as a whole went down by 25%. Still only about 25% of the city was covered.
Since then there have been all kinds of replications in Baltimore and New York and Kansas City and Puerto Rico and South Africa and Mexico and Honduras and even in Iraq.
These kinds of numbers of 40%, 50%, 60% drops are fairly common now and there have been multiple evaluations of the work; the Justice Department, CDC, Hopkins, have all done independent evaluations of the Cure Violence method and it’s fairly reliably effective at making a neighborhood safer. In doing so, it is without the arrest side effect, but just by helping people change. It even diffuses into the next neighborhoods.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with former US Intelligence officer Ray McGovern who served presidents for 33 years from 1963 – 1990. He continues to advocate for peace and accountability with organizations like Veterans for Peace and others. He’s been a vocal policy critic of both Republican and Democrat presidents and was in New Mexico in 2015 to mark the anniversary of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 which made war illegal in the world.
Paul Ingles: You’re here today, August 27th which is the anniversary of the Kellogg–Briand Pact. A lot of people don’t know about that moment in history and when they find out about it, then there is a little bit of a disappointment. Most would say “that sounds like it would have been a good idea”, but obviously the 20th and 21st centuries have not been paying attention to it. Talk about why it’s worth talking about. Why it’s still a moment in history that’s worth reflecting on, worth bringing back up?
Ray McGovern: Well, we’re talking 1928, so about ten years after the First World War. Wars of that magnitude have a way of lingering in their effects and these folks, especially Frank Kellogg who was Secretary of State, felt really strongly that, given what had happened in WWI and given the turbulence that everyone was expecting in Europe in 1920. 1923 was an especially turbulent time in Germany. He sought a way to ban war - pure and simple - end period. He persuaded Briand, a Frenchman to join him. The Frenchman wanted to delimit it a lot, but Kellogg stayed strong.
In the end, 83 Senators voted for it and one voted against it. It was regarded as the crest of the times. Kellogg won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in 1929, which was a very auspcious year, but that betokens the universal respect that this man had. The acceptance of the idea; we don’t want to do another war.
Now other things intervened of course and it’s much easier to do war than make a lasting peace. The terms exacted on the German people created fertile fields for Hitler and his regime to come to power. One of the points I tried to make this afternoon was simply that he came to power, but there was no real resistance. People watched as though from a box at the theater. I see that happening in our country today.
Ingles: Your intelligence career put you in the White House consistently between 1960 and ’83.
McGovern: That would be an exaggeration. When I was a junior officer, I didn’t get anywhere near the White House. I used to write things and those things got to the White House.
We had a daily publication in my day when I came in with John Kennedy, we called it the “pickle” [PICL];” the President’s Intelligence Check List. Today’s pickle is the President’s daily brief.
Ingles: Let me just pose the question; your career spanned over all these Presidents and then you’ve been engaged in watching the other presidential characters since then. I’m just wondering which among them, if any, seemed to you to be most driven towards peace and world affairs?
McGovern: That’s easy. Jimmy Carter had a real respect for human rights. He did some bizarre things that everybody said couldn’t be done and he elicited a lot of laugh stock from people who made fun of him. I suppose they had reason to make fun of the Georgia folks that he brought in with him, but his heart was in the right place. You can see that from what he did subsequently to his presidency.
He had been sabotaged by the oil war and by the really underhanded deal that Reagan’s people made with the Ayatollah (in Iran) to keep those hostages until after the election. You recall there were 52 hostages that the Iranians stole from our embassy and put in jail and there were negotiations all through that election year. It included everything it possibly could have including trying to rescue them and failed. It became known on the day of the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan that the Iranians were going to release them forthwith.
The investigative reporter, Robert Perry, has written a book called The October Surprise and he documents chapter and verse how Bobby Gates, George H. W. Bush and Bill Casey met with the Iranians months before the election and they guaranteed that if they released them on inauguration day, they would reward Iran for their participation in the plot by supplying them with weapons via Israel and by unblocking Iranian government monetary assets in U.S. banks.
Ingles: And Carter said at the beginning of his cancer struggled that his one regret was that he didn’t send in a second helicopter (on the rescue attempt) because he thought he would probably (have gotten them out and) get reelected. If they hadn’t run into a sandstorm, then a second helicopter might have been able to free the hostages? Would you agree with that assessment?
McGovern: No I wouldn’t. I like him, but that was an urge to do something and the impediments to freeing those people in one piece without them being killed seemed extraordinary.
I was overseas at the time when I heard that they had tried it. I wasn’t surprised that a glitch occurred. Maybe it’s better that it occurred where it did rather than them trying to storm the place where the hostages were in the event they got out. That’s the big thing. We’re talking about another year in captivity. Only the CIA guys were treated really roughly and subjected to some torture which is pretty much kept in jail. Now that’s a big deal for the [inaudible] 199 days or something like that.
I’d like to give Jimmy Carter the benefit of the doubt, but he had some wishful thinking that if he had sent one more helicopter that it would have changed history.
Ingles: One of the great parlor conversations or online blog topics, and you brought it up today, is whether Barrack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. He seemed even embarrassed by it at the time. If you go online now, you’re able to see articles that say he still hasn’t earned it, that his steps with Cuba and Iran bring him a step closer. Where would you suggest that, so close to the end of his term, that Obama is going to land as a peacemaker at all in his Administration?
McGovern: I confess to having been surprised by Barrack Obama and John Kerry in sticking to their guns so to speak in the negotiations with Iran. They were, have been and still are under extreme pressure from the Israeli lobby, from all kinds of folks that do not want the Iranians to play the proper role in that part of the world and they stuck to it. They got a terrific deal.
What I say in my lectures is this: most Americans have no idea that 16 U.S. intelligence agencies decided, as they put it, “with high confidence” unanimously back in 2007 and concluded that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003. Whoa! They had not resumed work on that weapon. That judgement came in 2007. It has been reaffirmed, reiterated every year since. That does not mean that they have not been working on generating electricity through nuclear power, they’re doing that in space, but you need separate work to create a nuclear warhead and we know that they haven’t been doing that since the end of 2003 which is 12 years ago.
That says to me that we have finally got on a piece of paper, an ironclad commitment from Iran to stop doing what we know they stopped doing at the end of 2003 and we’re going to monitor them, more closely now. That sounds funny, right? But if that’s what it takes, that’s alright! This is a good deal! Let’s do it! And let’s get this bugaboo out of this relationship.
Ingles: Peacemaking and non-violent conflict resolution is the topic of our program. It’s what our listeners are tuning in for. What would you like to say to those people about engagement that seems probably hard for them to even imagine in their lives today that would make a difference?
McGovern: Another good question. I would suggest that they take the time and energy that it takes to become better informed on what’s going on. The best program that I advertise and that I watch five days a week Monday through Friday is Amy Goodman’s democracynow.org. If you’ve got a computer, you can tune into that any time of the day or night and see real news for 15 minutes and then excellent commentary interviews and the like for the last 45 minutes. That alone will equip you to get out there and tell your friends what’s really going on and just abuse them of what they’re learning from Fox News or from the evening news. They think they’re getting real news.
Then it really is incumbent upon people to realize that there is such a thing as too late and they need to visit their senators, their representatives and that means staying beyond the time when they’re welcome. Stay on! And if you have gray hair like I do, be aware that you have a terrific advantage.
I’ve been beat up a couple of times by people simply for standing during a Hilary Clinton speech and simply for trying to see a public event with General David Petraeus in New York.
Now what happened? There are cameras around and it gets recorded and what we learned specifically with respect to Hillary Clinton is that Americans just really don’t like old people getting beat up!
When Fox News came out with this first report that a 71 year old veteran was thought to have a megaphone or a sign that he would wave in the Secretary’s face and turned his back on her or shout [at her], he was escorted from the auditorium, if you see the video, you see how I was escorted.
Why do I mention that? I mention that because people saw that on national TV, people saw my Veterans of Peace shirt, they found out I was 71 and Hillary Clinton received thousands and thousands and thousands of emails and telephone calls, why? Because Americans don’t like to see people my age getting beat up! I’m being serious here! Young people have attitudes [mumbles], but the old folks like me, put your body into it, take a leap of faith, do some civil disobedience in a meaningful way. They might rough you up a little bit, but they’re not going to break your arm or kill you!
People see that even people our age or especially people our age take this stuff seriously and we mean to speak out in our own way just as the churches for example in Germany and I dare say in the U.S. today cannot find their voice. It may not be an instant success, but at least we would be being faithful, faithful to our faith traditions and faithful to our Constitution and the people who fought for us 230 years ago.
It’s a big high because when you do this with people who are as dedicated as you, you’ll find a certain peace there that you would hardly imagine could exist. You find the affirmation of people that you respect and you find that it’s not about being successful, it’s about being faithful and that good is worth doing because it’s good.