Curing a different type of epidemic

Former Chicago gang member, Chico Tillmon, is fighting what seems to be an incurable epidemic in his city: violence.


Education 19 May 2020

“I understand that. But your victories will always be temporary,” says Tarrou to Doctor Rieux in The Plague by Albert Camus. This seems to make Rieux sad, “Forever, I know. But it is no reason to stop fighting.”

Chico Tillmon possesses the same obstinacy: he fights even though he knows there won’t be any solid successes to hold on to. Born and raised in Chicago, where he still lives, he is now in the middle of his life, but when he was 23, he was arrested for drug dealing and being a member of one of the gangs that drenched the city in blood. He spent the next 17 years in prison — his entire youth in a cell. As he counted his steps during yard time, he decided to dedicate his life to a mission. He is now about to finish his PhD in criminology and every day he tries to change the fixed destiny of adolescents in ghettos, who are like he was 30 years ago. Like Rieux, Tillmon is fighting what seems to be an incurable epidemic in his city: violence. Chicago police statistics recorded 565 homicides in 2018 — more than one murder per day. The epidemic shows no sign of abating: 9,000 robberies, 1,841 rapes, and 65,000 shoot-outs in 12 months. In some neighborhoods, the sound of sirens is constant background noise. Firearms are a commodity. Fifty-six percent of assailants are under 30. Seven arrests out of 10 are of African Americans. This is the backdrop against which Chico Tillmon talks about peace, possibilities, and pride. He knows it is a mission more than a promise. For him, utopia is a duty. A necessary vocation, “Even if it comes to nothing,” he says, “How could I not try?” In 2017, he received Ford’s “Men of Courage” award, an accolade assigned to people who have contributed to reinforcing the African American community. Now, as part of the “Cure Violence” association, and an independent consultant, he deals with crime de-escalation and prevention.

What exactly do you do?

I work with institutions and sector professionals; I try to help them find the best possible way to talk to the young people who grow up in this context of degradation. It is an activity I am involved in alongside my doctorate research. The objective of my analysis is to understand violent behaviors and to study how institutional agencies can make a real impact on people’s lives. Twice a week, I spend time with these kids who live in marginalized communities and are therefore at the most risk of adopting aggressive behaviors they can then not get away from.

How do you talk to the young people who you meet at workshops?

I never give solutions; I don’t tell them how they should behave, what they should say. I give them questions. I try to help them ask themselves about themselves by giving them ideas to provoke thoughts, reactions, and discussions. It is fundamental that they feel they have a space where they can say what they want, freely. They don’t have to obey but feel they can think. These ideas often give rise to long fiery debates because they also start talking about deeper themes, ones that young people who have grown up in the ghettos are rarely asked to express.

They follow you. Why?

Because I used to be one of them. I was the same: I spoke, hated, and scorned life in the same way, but now I am about to earn my PhD. I have a completely different profile from the others who “study” them as if they were human models to solve or isolate. It is an important aspect, it’s immediate, and it’s one that they can identify with. One of the fundamental elements in our meetings, for me, is to make them understand that they exist, that they have a voice, they are active subjects. And therefore they have a choice. Even when conditions appear to predetermine everything, they have the chance to change. It is hard to believe it is possible. But I managed, and I can tell them about it: I try to get closer to them by talking to them about my experiences. I explain that it will be hard, the obstacles are many, and that they will want to give up. “But you are better than me,” I say again and again. Because they are young, and can choose what to do with their lives. Part of my job is to connect them with the opportunities that already exist for helping them.

So, it is possible to change?

Thousands of people in Chicago live in a scenario without hope; not because they deserve it, but because the system has taken away their possibilities to improve. When you create claustrophobic conditions, from the point of view of prospects, worthiness, the potential for growth, then you have to realize people who are left with no hope react differently. One the one hand, people who possess something — whether it is a degree, a house, or a career — react differently to the context they are in. They become more strategic, shrewder, because they have to. A person who has nothing to lose on the other hand, sees the world from a much more ephemeral perspective.

You are talking about the system, not just people.

Yes, because violence is, above all, and always is, systematic. The first violence doesn’t come from the street; it is the economic and social structure we are in that creates the conditions that allow whole classes of people to be squashed and destined to stay that way. In some of Chicago’s districts, marginalization and aggressiveness have been handed down for generations. Labels are used to talk about these people: negro, red-neck. They are used to categorize people, to immediately identify them as a problem. They are not individuals, but collective problems. In this way, young people who grow up in the ghettos assume criminal profiles from the start. These are people with no self-control, who are hotheaded, often not well educated. But the first violence is perpetrated by the system on them. My objective is to give dignity back to these young people. Make them see that they have been left out.

How did you manage to change?

I saw that I could react differently, yes. I don’t know how to explain it; it was a moment, a revelation. I saw a better way forward, and from that moment it would not have made sense to go backward, to go back to how I lived before. It is like having to choose between taking a ship or an airplane to go from Italy to the USA: knowing it saves a month of traveling anyone would choose the airplane. Not because they have to, but because it makes sense, so you wouldn’t do it a different way. Once we see a different way of reacting, one that is better for us and those around us, it makes no sense to go back to how things were. That is what happened to me. I try to do the same thing with these young people: not by giving them more information, but by transmitting to them their possibility to have choices and to make their own. It will be they who say: I will take the airplane because it is simply smarter.

Where did the revelation come from for you?

From God, and from my mother. It happened while I was in prison. My mother didn’t want to see me in there: this was all I thought about in my cell all those years. I realized I was behaving in the wrong way. Religion can be lived in many ways; for me, God’s message is founded on two pillars: loving humanity and doing good. I was not doing anything good to people, on the contrary. The Bible changed my life. The Bible, my mother, and my children. Since they arrived, they forced me to do something with my life every morning. Not simply live it, but use it to have an impact.

Have there ever been moments when you have lost this belief?

The hardest time was when my grandmother and father died. They were dying, and I was stuck in jail, I wasn’t there for them, I couldn’t help them. I was truly desperate. I couldn’t stand the walls anymore, I didn’t know how I was going to get by for the remaining years of my sentence. But God gave me awareness and strength. I understood I didn’t want to be there; I no longer wanted to be that kind of person. I felt I had to make my mother proud. I thought that when I got out, I might become a minister, that’s how strong the faith inside me had grown over those years, but things went differently. Even though when it comes down to it my work is simply a different type of ministry.

This was the beginning of your mission.

I used the relationships I had had in jail to become even better at communicating with those who come from violent contexts, from the streets, from gun culture, and from anger. I saw that I could exercise the same leadership talents I had to use to rise through gang wars, for different objectives and priorities. This isn’t a job anyone can do. Every morning you go into a room with agitated, aggressive youths who you have to calm down so you can talk to them. They are individuals with violent behavior, people who have perhaps already killed without reason, beaten an innocent person. They are criminals. And you know it. Not everyone can deal with this. But I think isolating them is not, and cannot be, a solution. So I try to help them change.

Are there happy moments?

The best moment of all was when the first young man who I worked with, alongside other, extraordinary professionals, called me to tell me he had managed to pass the selection process for a master’s degree. He went from drug abuse and dealing, to enthusiasm for studying. Receiving messages like this makes everything I do make sense. It isn’t rare.

On the other hand, how does it feel, knowing that a young man who you have dedicated time to, has gone back to shooting?

When I fail, it is devastating, what else can I say. I have known young men, really young men, who have died, and others who have killed people. Every time it happens I can’t help asking myself: maybe I should have called him one more time, I should have spoken to him more often, been closer. It is difficult to bear the weight of the pain, and I’ve been doing this work for 10 years.

Are you saying you carry on anyway; you don’t stop?

My question is: once you have become aware that your people are dying for futile reasons, because of the proliferation of weapons, violence inherited as the norm, the absence of any prospects, what do you do? I have no choice. I cannot give up. I cannot stop, because I love my people. Today, trying to help marginalized families and young people is my life’s mission. I simply couldn’t do anything else. Perhaps all the difficulties I have had to overcome have prepared me to bear the pain.

What about when you look at the system?

It is frustrating. America is a nation built on racism. Initially towards native Americans, then African American slaves. An African American life doesn’t have the same value as a white life. When black people who enter politics don’t understand from experience the conditions in which the twenty-somethings from the neighborhoods grow up in, they seem to forget about the roots of the problem. We have had a black president, but as far as institutional racism goes, nothing has changed. Diversity and inclusion, on the other hand, are essential. You have to make space, and above all give a voice to people who are different. To have them sit down at the table and eat together. Don’t invite me to dinner if you don’t want to share your food. The other structural tools of violence no one seems to be able to put a brake on, are firearms. In Chicago, more people die from gun crime than in Los Angeles and New York put together. It is considered the city of records. But there is also a lot of social attention: the movement against firearm violence was born in Chicago. Many people believe that if we find a solution here, it means we have found one for the whole of the United States.

What keeps you going?

The element that most helps me carry on believing is simple: winning. Learning that some of my young men finish school, find jobs, or are expecting children. My children, for me, are fundamental: knowing they understand what I am doing, the effort I put into society. In his class essay, my son wrote that his daddy is a doctor, even though I haven’t finished my PhD yet, and said I help people.

What image would you give to a utopia?

A balanced community of interconnected people. People of all ethnic groups, classes, and education. I think the challenge is to find harmony within diversity, not aspiring to be homogeneous. I would never imagine a utopia of absolute sameness, where we are all blue. I would think of a community where we can remain different, but are able to live with respect and love for others. What moral growth can we build if we are all the same? It is when people begin to understand that they can have different experiences and knowledge, but discuss things, that the people in a room begin to grow, and to change.