Eddie Bocanegra is part of a unique group known as “violence interrupters” in CeaseFire, a Chicago-based organization that applies the principles of public health to the brutality of the streets. Founded in 2000 CeaseFire, a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, combines “science and street outreach to track where violence is heating up and then cools the situation down,” according to its website. Eddie works in areas of the Windy City that some refer to as war zones. The first half of 2011, the city recorded 239 murders; 18 percent of victims and 29 percent of offenders were Latino.
CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin believes that violence mimics infections like tuberculosis and AIDS and suggests that the response ought to mimic the way these diseases are treated: by preventing violence from being transmitted from person to person. His strategy approaches violence as a learned behavior and attempts to control epidemics of violence by changing the norms of behavior.
Eddie is most deeply disturbed by the effects of violence on children. He knows first hand about violence, having served 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder he committed when he was just a teen. A remorseful Eddie doesn’t excuse his behavior, but he sees his work with CeaseFire as part of his penance. “To this day, everything I do, I do for my victim.”
These days, he spends much of his time with younger children in efforts to keep them off the streets and provide them some support. The 34-year-old Chicago native has been a violence interrupter for two years. Violence interrupters intervene in conflicts throughout the city on an around-the-clock basis and even step in between a would-be shooter and victim to try to defuse a volatile situation—and prevent any gunfire. They also work with CeaseFire’s outreach workers to counsel and mentor people who are most at risk of committing an act of violence and stage shooting responses to reinforce the unacceptability of violence in the community.
Eddie hopes to keep others from making the same tragic mistakes he did. “Half of my life, I was in prison. That’s why I do what I do now,” he says. “To me, it’s a personal thing.”
In addition to his work with CeaseFire, Eddie has started a support group for mothers who have lost children to violence, and he teaches art in schools and summer programs. He is also working toward a degree in social work.
Eddie’s work and dedication is highlighted in a new documentary, “The Interrupters,” by acclaimed director Steve James and producer Alex Kotlowitz. The movie follows Eddie and two other CeaseFire outreach workers in their interrupter roles on the streets of Chicago, revealing their violent pasts and their efforts to now inspire journeys of hope and redemption. The program’s results back up its approach: A recent study by the Department of Justice found that in six of seven Chicago neighborhoods where CeaseFire has been on the ground, shootings or attempted shootings decreased by 16 to 27 percent more than in comparable neighborhoods.