Silencing the Guns: Peace begins with getting youths to slow down

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Students at Chicago’s Harper High School gather around Tim Jackson to start a meeting of the Becoming a Man program last year. | Sun-Times file photo

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series of opinion essays, produced in cooperation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, exploring solutions to the scourge of gun violence in Chicago. The Crime Lab released a report this month about the historic surge in gun violence in Chicago last year, providing insight into what happened and why. Silencing the Guns continues the conversation.

Young men growing up on the south and west sides of Chicago are exposed to a range of serious conflicts. A fight over a small rubber ball would seem trivial by comparison. But that is exactly where one anti-violence program starts, with the following exercise:

A counselor pairs up two young men, gives one of them a ball and tells him to make a fist around it. The counselor tells the other young man that he has one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball from his partner. You can imagine the chaos that ensues as everyone tries to physically pry away the ball.

Then the counselor asks a question that seems naive: How many people simply asked for the ball? No one raises their hand. Everyone insists his partner never would have given up the ball if asked.

But is this true? The counselor asks the young men with the ball if they would have given it up if asked. Most say yes.

The value of this exercise, of course, is that it demonstrates how often we get things wrong when we think too quickly, and how pausing to reflect might reveal other courses of action. This is one of the opening exercises in the “Becoming A Man” (BAM) program offered by Youth Guidance at Chicago-area schools. A guiding principle in the BAM program, and in a cognitive behavior therapy program implemented at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, is that violence can be prevented if we can help youth to slow down, to think before they act.

After a year in Chicago as violent as 2016, we naturally wonder how to prevent it from continuing, and that begins with trying to understand why there were so many shootings and murders in the first place. We know most of the gun violence is concentrated among young people on the south and west sides, but it is hard to find a clear cause. Often, seemingly small slights and minor conflicts escalate to the point that someone pulls a trigger. Why?

Part of the answer, and potentially part of the solution to Chicago’s gun violence, is revealed in the activity with the ball.

In recent work with colleagues at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, we identified an approach that reduced arrests for violent crime among young men by nearly 50 percent and recidivism by 21 percent. This approach, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, starts with a simple observation: People often act without thinking. We make quick assumptions without pausing to think about whether we’re right.

This is true for everyone. But this lens helps us see that the seeming lack of reason for much of the violence in Chicago is itself a reason. In the heat of conflict, someone pulls a trigger not because they thought carefully about a reason to commit murder, but rather because they never considered a reason not to.

The key point here, that we must learn to pause and think, is particularly important for youth growing up in violent neighborhoods. In many ways, they must navigate a far more nuanced social world than youth in safe neighborhoods.

For example, imagine you are a teenager who is talking loudly with friends at the movies. Someone bigger tells you to sit down and be quiet. Or imagine that you are in class, talking loudly with friends, and the teacher tells you to sit down and be quiet. Those situations feel similar — someone more powerful is confronting you. And if you grow up in a safe neighborhood, your response is often the same: To sit down and be quiet. You do this without thinking about it, almost automatically, and it usually serves you well.

But if you grow up in a tough neighborhood, when a stranger tells you to sit down and shut up, it is less clear what the right response is. If you give in and comply, you risk being victimized again and again. Sometimes, you have to fight back. But if you fight back against your teacher, you’ve made a mistake. If you fight back against someone who has a weapon, you’ve made a mistake. You cannot respond to all situations the same way; you cannot respond automatically.

Young people growing up in violent neighborhoods shoulder a burden that the affluent do not. They cannot afford to think fast. They have to think slowly because the code of the street is different from the code of the classroom. They are constantly navigating different codes and nuances, and getting it right can be the difference between life and death. This may be why programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy are so effective.

As one staff member at the juvenile temporary detention center tells the young men in the cognitive behavioral therapy program there, “If I could give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, you wouldn’t be here.”

We think this highlights the real promise of this approach for preventing another year like the last one. Our challenge now is to find a way to give all youths the time they need.

Jonathan Guryan is an associate professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Anuj Shah is an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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To read the first essay in this series, click here.

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