Here’s the bad news. As of a couple days ago Chicago garnered the dubious distinction as murder capital of the United States.

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Now the good news: some very smart and dedicated individuals are thinking seriously about how to reverse the trend. Dr. Gary Slutkin asks us if it is possible to put an end to violence? Can we put violence in the past in the same way that the plague, small pox, and leprosy have all entered the annals of history?

When thinking about violence Slutkin encourages us to think not of guns and gangbangers, but rather, an infectious disease, an epidemiological challenge.

Violence leads to fear, which scares away the best teachers and most talented minds from violent communities. Which in turn leads to low levels of education and a lack of business investment. In Chicago alone fear caused by violence has led to billions of dollars in loss in cities like Chicago.

Slutkin, an epidemiologist and medical doctor at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows us a map which shows an ‘infectious disease outbreak’ of violence in Chicago. Next we see a slide of the plague.

In both cases deaths were a daily occurrence. People don’t want to enter certain neighbourhoods. Blame is spread thoroughly around, but in both cases the root of the infection is invisible. In the case of the plague the infection spread via a bacteria inside a flea on a rat. Who knew? Nobody knew?

Charts of waves of violence are identical to those of disease outbreaks. This is true with violence in the US, Colombia, Rwanda, and Brazil. Slutkin says that violence behaves like infectious diseases in almost every single aspect.

More importantly, the spread of violence also seems to respond to the same counter strategies that epidemiologists apply to stop the spread of disease. Epidemiologists try to inhibit infectious diseases with two basic strategies: 1.) to interrupt transmission and 2.) by changing social norms.

We do what we see other people doing. If everyone is reading New Yorker magazine, then we’ll start reading the New Yorker too. If you grow up eating with a knife and a fork, then you will too. But if you grow up eating with your hands, then so will you. The number one indicator of condom use, says Slutkin, is whether or not that person thinks his or her friends are using condoms.

Why was no one smoking in the Camden opera house during Slutkin’s presentation? Because it goes against social norms. 50 years ago that wasn’t the case. At least a third of the audience would have been smoking. That tells us in that norms can be changed.

The Interrupters

In the middle of Slutkin’s presentation a Black man – one of three here – wearing a beanie and with a strong South Chicago accent stands up in the audience and starts speaking loudly into his cell phone. The audience is thrown aback. What in the hell is going on? John is an interrupter. When quarrels break out in violent communities John is called in by community leader where he interrupts the transmission of infection. That is, he calms things down.


Slutkin emphasizes that the only way to disrupt the transmission of violence is by engaging members of local communities to do the disrupting. One day the staff of CeaseFire received a call from a concerned mother whose son was loading up weapons, getting ready to go out and do something. The mother would never call the police on her own son, but she knew she could trust CeaseFire to send out someone from her same community who could help stop the violence about to take place.

If you want to learn more about the program, I highly recommend this article by Alex Kotlowitz in New York Times Magazine.

Slutkin’s approach to ending violence is along the same lines as most others. (The End Violence Project in Philly also gets lots of love.) The fact that he’s able to give a theoretical framework to his work that appeals to audiences like the readers of New York Times Magazine and those here at Pop!Tech is a great thing if it leads to more funding and more attention on the causes of violence and what can be done to stop them.