From Palestine to Baltimore: A Story of Denial
By Mohammad Asideh | May 12th, 2015
On a cold Wednesday night in May, I –a stranger from Palestine- was sitting in a car in Yonkers, New York with two violence interrupters in a suspiciously quiet neighborhood when one of the interrupters received a call from a colleague: two young men had a fight nearby. The violence interrupters are worried that the fight will escalate to lethal levels, resulting in a shooting or homicide. Quickly we moved to that block where the interrupters used their influence to calm the two young men.
Earlier that week, I visited Albany, New York, 326 miles from the protests on the streets of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. I was invited to observe and participate in a Cure Violence quarterly meeting of community organizations, violence interrupters, outreach workers and the former police officer who now supervises and manages nine Cure Violence sites in New York. I was fascinated by what I heard, but also surprised by where the participants had come from: a former police officer was running a workshop and working side by side with people who spent years in prison and who have transformed their lives and now are working to reduce violence. In that room in Albany I saw a team with one goal: making their community a safer place for the families that live there. To me, everyone in that room is a hero.
After the meeting, I spoke shortly with Jeff, the former police officer; I asked him why he was supervising these Cure Violence sites.
Jeff: “Mohammad, I was a police officer in Rochester, New York for a long time. My role was to catch bad guys and put them in jail. They would spend a few years in jail, and then they’d go out and do the same thing. I would wind up running after the same guy time after time, trying to capture him. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that approach is not working, and we need a new approach.”
Enter the Cure Violence health approach. The idea about using a health approach to interrupt the transmission of violence started in 1995 by Dr. Gary Slutkin who spent 10 years working to contain epidemics in Africa. Upon returning home to Chicago, Dr. Slutkin noticed a clustering of violence that reminded him of the epidemic maps he had used in Africa. Upon further research, he discovered that violence is contagious just like epidemics, and can be cured the same way.
Thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Cure Violence sites in Chicago and Baltimore, meeting with violence interrupters who previously were involved in gangs and/or violence and spent time in prison.
I met one man who spent 22 years in prison. My question was simple: “Did prison change you?” “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I even had more ideas and connections to be more violent when I leave the jail” he answered.
Then one day he met a Cure Violence interrupter. And that day changed his life, and most likely saved others as well. Nowadays, he is a violence interrupter and speaks at colleges and organizations, raising awareness for a health approach to violence prevention and saving lives. I likened him the “Nelson Mandela of Baltimore.” And even though he served 22 years in prison for his crimes, he still pays every day as it’s next to impossible for him to find a job.
You might be wondering why a Palestinian would write about what’s happening in Baltimore.
My name is Mohammad, I am a Palestinian farmer and I recently joined Cure Violence as an Atlas Corps fellow.
I come from a country where violence is everywhere because of political conflict. I was used to waking up in the morning, opening the window and seeing an Israeli military tank in front of my home. At age 15 I decided violence is the only way to end the military occupation and solve the conflict.
Then one day I met Abdallah from Jenin City, and he changed my life. He chose a non-violent resistance approach to the political conflict at a time when noise from mortars, rockets and gunfire in the Palestinian-Israeli sky was loudest.
I believe that there is a broader lesson for all of us to learn. For decades, policy leaders in Washington, DC were trying to tell us in Palestine and Israel how to solve our problems. I believe it’s our turn now to solve the conflict. At some point I realized that both Palestinians and Israelis continue to make the same mistakes, decade after decade. For Palestinians, nothing on this earth will make us surrender; for Israelis, nothing will ever make them leave what we consider historical Palestine. What’s most amazing is that we both know these statements to be true, but nevertheless, don’t stop the violence on both sides to try a different approach.
Up until last fall, I was not familiar with the Cure Violence health approach. I see now that what Abdallah showed me is the same as what Cure Violence interrupters do in cities around the globe. As much as I appreciate the need to discuss and truly understand the real reasons behind violence whether in Baltimore or the Middle East, I believe the health approach to interrupting violence will reduce violence in the short-term and enhance dialogue and conflict resolution in the longer-term. Doing this may just yield the peace between Palestine and Israel we have been seeking all along.
The author is a 2015 Atlas Corps fellow for Cure Violence and is based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.