The View from Kalamazoo
Criminologist and author David M. Kennedy has a plan for ending the violence that has plagued Kalamazoo’s minority neighborhoods.
He outlined it when he spoke at the 10th anniversary dinner for ISAAC - Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community - at the Bernard Center on the campus of Western Michigan University on March 24, 2012.
It is such a deceptively simple plan that when he described it at the dinner before about 500 people, I was highly skeptical.
Now that I’ve read his book, “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-City America,” I feel like I’ve absorbed a 283-page sermon on the topic and it makes sense.
In the past two years, 10 of Kalamazoo’s last 15 homicides have occurred on the city’s north side. On Easter Sunday, a 28-year-old was shot in the leg on Woodbury Avenue. Of course, this kind of violence goes on in urban neighborhoods all over the United States.
Kennedy has spent three decades looking at these issues and experimenting with solutions. His ideas have been tried in more than 70 communities and now come under the umbrella of the National Network for Safe Communities.
My former colleague, Rex Hall Jr. at the Kalamazoo Gazette, has described Kennedy’s plan in detail.
Here’s the short version: Police, prosecutors and probation team up to identify the most violent citizens — the number will be fairly small. Next you invite these individuals to bring someone influential to a meeting and promise not to arrest them. You gather up service providers for jobs, education, spiritual succor and drug treatment and invite them, too.
At the meeting, it is explained that the violence stops now and that help is available. It is also explained that if the violence doesn’t stop now, the police will come down like thunder and create a storm of epic proportions.
And it works - for a while. But then, according to Kennedy’s book, one of the following generally happens: either the political will to keep the program going dissipates, personality conflicts arise, racism rears its ugly head or the service providers, in seeking to save everyone, sidetrack the program. The violence returns.
ISAAC brought Kennedy to Kalamazoo to discuss the possibility of instituting his ideas here. The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety is participating in the conversation.
During my 20-plus years in Kalamazoo, this community has tried a number of programs aimed at solving the poverty, violence and drug use which plague some of Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods. There have been youth job programs, mentoring programs, after school tutoring efforts, increased religious presence, mothers fighting back after losing children to violence and the best known of all - The Kalamazoo Promise with its guarantee of free college. Nothing has worked. I have either participated in, written about or edited stories about all these various efforts.
As Kennedy writes: “When we think about crime we are almost always thinking about something else, that it’s all really about something else. It’s about bad people with bad character, so we need to change their character, get them to turn their lives around. It’s about how they got their bad character, so we need to change their families and communities. It’s about racism, so we need to end racism. It’s about lack of economic opportunity, so we need to do job development. It’s about weak and inconsistent law enforcement, so we need stronger laws, more cops, tougher judges. To do something about crime, our most central conviction is that we have to go through other things.” And that, says Kennedy, “dooms us.”
A few months ago I was talking to a group of professionals - people who live in nice neighborhoods, have advanced degrees, hold good jobs. Aware that I work as a psychologist in a substance abuse treatment facility, one of these professionals asked me, “What is it like to work with bad people?”
And therein lies the problem.
“I don’t know,” I said to the professional. “I’ve never met a bad person.” I have heard plenty of stories involving very bad behaviors, but the people I work with generally have the same values and beliefs as I do.
To really bring peace to all the neighborhoods of this city, we have to stop thinking that some areas of this city are reserved for bad people who get what they deserve. We have to start thinking, instead, that everyone deserves to be able to walk down a street on Easter Sunday without getting a bullet in their leg.
Stop the violence, offer the services, go after the drug markets, remember we’re all people just trying to make our way in this world. Then repeat over and over and over again. It really is that simple.