Imagine a world where after being accused of using a counterfeit bill, George Floyd was approached by a community member who helped mediate the situation, rather than the police officer who suffocated him as he begged for his life. A world where Rayshard Brooks was not murdered for falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot, but given a ride home. A world where Elijah McClain was not choked and injected with ketamine for “acting suspicious,” but simply asked by a neighbor how he was doing.
Those in power would have us believe that such a world is impossible — but for the past four years, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago has been providing a roadmap for what this radical reimagining of justice might look like.
For decades, Chicago has been plagued by gun violence, which has taken the lives of more than 350 people in the city this year. Nonviolence Chicago’s workers are guided by Martin Luther King’s principles and defuse conflict through mediation rather than by force. Whenever there is a shooting, outreach workers arrive at the scene within 30 minutes to advocate against retaliation — and even when they insert themselves in potentially dangerous situations, they do not wear bullet proof vests and refuse to carry weapons.
“People who are involved in violence are human, just like anyone else,” said Sam Castro, the institute’s outreach program supervisor. “They need love and resources.”
“Many of our staff have been formerly incarcerated or gang involved — and yet, when given an opportunity and purpose, they dedicate their entire lives to shaping the lives of others.”
The institute was founded in 2015, right after the city was left reeling from yet another devastating loss. This time, it was the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he ran away. The increasingly-militarized Chicago Police Department later funded an elaborate cover-up, further confirming that they could not be depended on to address the homicide rates in the community. In fact, police were frequently the purveyors of violence themselves.
In Chicago, this violence is especially appalling: It includes the assassination of the Black revolutionary Fred Hampton in 1969, two decades of torturing Black suspects, imprisoning thousands at a secretive interrogation site and spending millions of taxpayer dollars on brutality settlements while local schools are shuttered due to lack of funds.
The background of the institute’s founder, Teny Gross, prepared him to relate to the violence in Chicago — both as a victim and perpetrator. On the one hand, members of his family had been persecuted by the Nazis and killed during the Holocaust. On the other, he helped enforce a violent military occupation during his time in the Israeli Defense Force, a perspective which moved him to spend the rest of his life studying, teaching and practicing a philosophy of nonviolence.
Since 2015, the institute has expanded to Austin, Back of Yards and West Garfield Park — some of the city’s most at-risk districts. Most of its workers grew up in the neighborhoods they serve. As Senior Director Chris Patterson explained, “Many of our staff have been formerly incarcerated or gang involved — and yet, when given an opportunity and purpose, they dedicate their entire lives to shaping the lives of others. They put on their invisible capes everyday to go out and help people.”