Violence as a disease, and one man’s prescription for Richmond

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As an advocate for non-violence, Dr. Joseph Marshall had devoted the better part of his adult life to teaching others how to answer tough questions. Questions like: How thin is the line between killing someone and turning the other cheek? What would it take for you to justify murder? Can you conquer your instincts when those instincts were shaped from years of fighting on the streets?

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that he had to face the biggest personal test of his nonviolent philosophy.

“When I heard my grandmother got sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old boy, I went ballistic,” Marshall said.

He paused in the telling of the story to look around the Rosie the Riveter conference room, in the basement of Richmond’s City Hall and lock eyes with each student in his non-violence training workshop for a few seconds.

“He had disrespected my Grandma,” Marshall continued. “The height of everything.”

On the last day of his three-day Alive & Free violence prevention training for a select group of Richmond administrators and community leaders, Marshall wants to make sure they truly get the point: He has been there; he has faced the same temptation.

Alive & Free operates on the idea that violence is a disease, and Marshall says he knows the treatment to cure it. But the cool teacher demeanor slips slightly as he recalls the ultimate test of his prescription.

“Then my grandmother said something that made me think,” Marshall said. “She said, ‘He didn’t disrespect me. He did this to me. But, he can’t take my essence. He can’t take me from me.’”

His grandmother’s words, Marshall said, stopped him from walking out the door, getting on a plane and destroying his career and years of teaching nonviolence by killing the man who raped her. They granted him a reprieve that’s now a cornerstone in his training.

Respect and disrespect are two powerful motivators, on and off the streets. Some people believe you have to earn respect. Others say you have to give it to get it.

Marshall teaches that both of those ideas are fallacies. “Respect comes from within,” he said.

Marshall has given this training dozens of times, to hundreds of people around the world. From San Francisco– where it all started– to Bangkok, Thailand in 2010 and Haiti last year. He calls it the Alive & Free Movement. Marshall said the movement focuses on recruiting, teaching and developing people committed to eliminating violence in their own lives and in their communities, people he calls “street soldiers.”

Street soldiers were born out of Marshall’s work at the Omega Boys club, a youth violence prevention center he started in 1987 with Jack Jacqua. The two met and developed the club while working in the San Francisco Unified School District.

After 10 years of success at Omega Boys, Marshall said he started to dissect his message and focus on how he could crystalize, and potentially repeat, the success of Omega Boys on a much broader scale.

“I always knew there was a method,” he said. “Around 1996, I finally figured out what the methodology was. I finally began to put it together in a formula that was transferable to other people.”

Ten years later the movement officially kicked off at its first national conference, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Marshall admits to, maybe, being a little nervous at that first meeting—maybe. But he is confident that, like a medical doctor who diagnoses cancer in patients from different backgrounds, he can diagnose violence and treat it in people from any country, any city, any hood.

“To go to a whole ‘nother place and talk to people and do the exact same thing—teach the risk factors, rules for living, commandments for violence, dealing with emotional residue,” is wonderful he said.

For Marshall, the people in the Richmond conference room and the people he taught in South Africa and Boston are no different. They blend together. It’s hard for him to pick out a particular training, a particular person who was changed—because the reaction is the same nearly every time.

On day one, Marshall spends eight hours laying a foundation that violence is a disease. On this foundation he builds the rest of his methodology. To accept treatment, and understand the prescription, people must first embrace the premise that violence is contagious. It is spread through human-to-human contact, and lives in people—but it is separate from the person.

“The disease is the same,” he said. “Violence is violence, doesn’t matter where you go.”

Emily Ozer, an associate professor of community health and human development at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, says the idea that the spread of violence is akin to an epidemic is an important one because it broadens the problem to a public health level, rather than focusing on individual or family factors.

“Violence happens in a community context, she said. ”If we just focus on individuals or family then we’re losing the bigger picture.”

One of the earliest advocates of violence-as-disease, Gary Slutkin, also got his start in San Francisco. An epidemiologist and physician, Slutkin noticed patterns, causes and effects of health and disease in communities. After working in San Francisco in the early ‘80s to stop the rapid spread of tuberculosis, and a decade in Africa battling infectious diseases, Slutkin returned to his hometown, Chicago, and started working on the problem of homicides.

It was during that time, while working to stem violence in the city that he realized the parallels between fighting infectious diseases and fighting violent crime.

According to his organization — Cure Violence, originally known as CeaseFire — the realization led him to a scientific model for violence prevention. It’s a clinical approach: “This method,” the group’s website states, “begins with epidemiological analysis of the clusters involved and transmission dynamics, and uses several new categories of disease control.”

Marshall’s street-soldiers may consider their lives and work as far away from the ivory tower of academia, but they’re in the same category as trained scientists seeking out new cases of tuberculosis or bird flu, the website says.

Studies support Slutkin’s model. Violence leads to more violence—not just because of retaliation killings but also because over time continued exposure leads people to become desensitized and accept it as a normal part of life.

Ozer, the Berkeley professor, says that programs like Slutkin’s and Marshall’s offer hope for stopping the spread of violence by challenging the idea of what is considered normal and expected. “Just because violence can spread like a disease doesn’t mean that it can’t be stopped,” Ozer said. “This relies on the street cred, insider knowledge, relationship networks, and frank heroism of the community members and interveners who work to prevent further violence.”

The people Marshall teaches in his trainings are often those insiders, the ones with enough street cred to make a difference—if they change their ways. After spending the first day of the training loading them with statistics, definitions and information Marshall does what any good teacher would do—he assigns homework.

The homework includes self-reflection: What makes you feel angry, disrespected? When have you experienced violence? Write an essay.

“They never expect it to be about themselves,” Marshall said, chuckling. “They say, ‘I thought I was here for something else,’ and then they realize, ‘This is really about me.’”

By the third day, the lessons, reflections and film clips Marshall uses turn into revelations.

Men and women who have lived hard lives, whose bodies bear tattoos and scars marking decades spent on the streets, often find themselves raw and emotional come day three. They cry. They break through.

It surprised Marshall the first time, he said. “I am not trying to elicit emotion,” he said. “I’m just giving information.”

But, he added that naturally when talking about what people have done you stumble into how they feel. “People have feelings attached to their actions,” he said. “You have to hide that on the street, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

By now he is used to it. People open up every time. The essays they turn in are not always well written. Often, they’re scrawled in shaky handwriting on crumpled paper—but Marshall finds that each time they’re deeply personal, describing years spent slinging drugs, abuse—physical and mental—by the people closest to them, and childhoods littered with fear and uncertainty.

In the small cement conference room in the basement of Richmond City Hall, Marshall starts day three by asking who will read their essay out loud in front of a dozen people who were strangers just a couple of days ago.

Like perfectly aligned dominoes, eyes around the room fall to the floor. Nobody wants to share. “I didn’t know we were going to have to read them,” someone mutters.

It is uncomfortably quiet. Marshall tilts back in his chair at the head of the table, hands steepled beneath his raised chin, slight smile on his lips, and waits.

Antoine Snelgro looks up and Marshall swoops down on him. “Antoine! Why don’t you read yours?” Snelgro shakes his head in resignation—he’s been through this before, as an Omega Boy in the 80s.

He picks up his essay and reads back, detailing an early life full of violence and crime. Snelgro is one of Marshall’s success stories. He’s working on his master’s degree so he can consult with governments and community groups on reducing violence. Marshall considers him a “disciple” for Alive & Free—spreading the word about how to treat violence.

In the end, spreading the prescription for violence – making the cure as infectious as the disease — is Marshall’s goal for everyone he meets around the world, and for this room full of people in Richmond.

“The hope is that more people give the information that I’m giving out,” he said.

Clarence Ford, 24, a community researcher for Richmond-based Safe Return Project, has been working for the last few years to get his life on a better path. He recently enrolled in community college and was able to attend Marshall’s training through work.

In the Civic Center plaza, Ford squinted in the bright light of the sun shining on his hometown as he observed that while Marshall’s information was helpful, action is another thing entirely. He was hit hardest by Marshall’s lecture on what constitutes a friend. He realized, he said, he has some changes to make. “I got to get some real friends in my life,” Ford said.

While evaluating the training, Ford also mused about his goals for the future. He started to list the standard American dream points: graduate college, get a good job, buy a house…then he stopped, and backed up.

“I want to stop going to funerals,” he said. “I want to see a better community.”

Marshall is contracted for another Richmond training on October 15, funded by The California Endowment. There are 25 seats available for government workers, teachers, police, probation officers and faith leaders in Richmond.

Like always, Marshall said he would push those who attend hard to explore their personal experiences with violence, hoping that should the time ever come where they have to decide between retaliation and non-action they will be able to do what he did years ago and decide not to pick up the gun.

“The more people that have the information about how to prevent violence the safer Richmond will be,” he said.

 

[Editor's note: This article was amended to correct the funding source, from the Office of Neighborhood Safety to The California Endowment.] 

2 Comments

  1. Barbara Cross

    What a powerful story. We couls usre use an Advocate and program like that in Southeastern Virginia.

    • Barbara Cross

      Corrections: What a powerful story. We could really use an Advocate and prevention program like Mr. Marshall’s in Southeastern Virginia.

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