Five nights a week, pastors, former drug dealers and community activists take to some of the most dangerous streets in Indianapolis.
They are trying to intercept children as young as 10 who are being targeted by drug dealers. They’re learning from police who the greatest threats to peace are, calming conflicts that could erupt in gun violence and setting up real connections with employers willing to hire gang members who want to escape that life.
Rev. Charles Harrison, pastor of Barnes United Methodist Church in a dangerous neighborhood on Indianapolis’ west side and a leader of the Indianapolis 10 Point Coalition, shared with the Franklin Rotary Club, city leaders and police officers this week about the group’s progress in stopping violence.
“These are heroes out there who risk their lives four or five nights per week,” Harrison said. “They are peacemakers.”
While Johnson County isn’t plagued with anywhere near the same level of gun violence as Indianapolis neighborhoods, his work and message offer lessons for other communities in how to redirect young people with few options for a future who may easily fall into a life of drugs, violence and other crimes. Success depends on getting entire neighborhoods involved in an effort and showing teens a concrete plan for a different life.
The coalition formed in 1998 after the city experienced a record-breaking number of homicides due to the crack epidemic. Now, nearly 20 years later, Harrison and the organization recently received a national honor for its work — the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.
For years, Harrison would drive past youth aimlessly gathered on streets and at crime scenes, and believed that gun violence wasn’t an issue for him to address because he viewed the people involved as drug users and criminals, not victims. That changed when city leaders asked him what the church could do about gun violence and exposed him to programs churches had successfully been involved in in Boston.
Now, the group walks the streets of Indianapolis during the most dangerous hours, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., and offers young people an option other than life as a gang member. They don’t just tell them to get jobs, rather they help them connect with Indianapolis businesses poised to put them to work.
Last year, 700 people were referred for jobs. The goal this year is to refer 2,000 people for jobs and have 30 businesses partner with the coalition. In their target areas, deaths due to gun violence have dropped, and certain communities have gone more than a year without a homicide.
The keys to success include mobilizing all parts of a neighborhood to focus on the issue. That includes residents, churches, businesses and organizations such as youth sports leagues.
“We cannot just put that issue on police,” Harrison said.
The issue had to become so important that a community puts all its resources into tackling the root causes of youth and adult violence, such as lack of options for education and jobs and adult ex-offenders who are out of prison but feel marked, are without workplace skills and are unable to find jobs, he said. Too often, children come from broken, single-family homes and, in the worst cases, are raising themselves with one parent using drugs or committing crimes.
“We have to begin to address these issues,” Harrison said.
They do their work by first getting the leaders of gangs into productive jobs, then they begin to pull other members away from the culture. But they needed a way to establish contact and have credibility with the gang members, beyond just a preacher’s message. They started by recruiting former gang members who had escaped that life and turned their lives around, but still had street credibility. They ended up with former criminals walking the streets with ministers and community volunteers.
“We were the boots on the ground,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to redirect the lives of these young people.”
The youth have no hope, and know of no life outside the gang, violence and drug culture. The coalition members expose them to life beyond their neighborhoods.
Police have a role, too, by helping the coalition determine who are the greatest threats to peace. The group targets those people, but also have to connect with children as young as 10, 11 or 12 who are being targeted by drug dealers, and, more recently, are starting to carry guns and see the weapons as the only way to resolve a problem.
“They don’t know how to handle conflicts in healthy ways,” Harrison said of the coalition’s challenge in working with children.
He knows the coalition cannot stop all gun violence, but the work shows that it can be curbed and that young people can be saved and put on a path of success.
When conflicts do erupt, the coalition activates its rapid response team to serve as a buffer between an angry, devastated community and the police and the crime scene. He said the group prevented a riot several years ago after a police shooting, and thinks that work of this type could have prevented the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.
“We do an effective job because we know the people in the neighborhoods and can keep the peace,” he said.
He shared how violence had impacted his own life — his brother was killed in Louisville at the age of 21, when Harrison was 14 years old, and he was enraged when the people responsible pretended to mourn his brother’s death and reached out to his family. He plotted to kill them, but a group of men intervened.
“If men in the community helped transform my life and put me on a path to success, why couldn’t we do the same thing in the city of Indianapolis,” Harrison said. “I was one of the kids that I deal with now that, depending on the choice you make, can mean life or death.”
The coalition is now starting to help an eastside group focused on curbing violence in the 10th Street and Rural Avenue neighborhood, and has helped organizations in Muncie, Kokomo, Gary, Fort Wayne and Evansville. Cleveland and Cincinnati want to mimic the coalition’s work too.
“What we’re doing is spreading across the county,” Harrison said.