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Ex-felons hit Chicago's streets to fight violence

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Derrick House, Frederick Seaton and Napoleon English know all too well about the violence that is plaguing the streets of Chicago. Each man has spent time in prison; two of them for murder.

But these days they spend their time trying to prevent one person from shooting another. They work for Ceasefire.

With a 39 percent jump in homicides in the first six months of 2012 compared to 2011, a new and sometimes uneasy alliance takes root on Friday to try and combat the deadly mayhem. Ceasefire workers and the Chicago Police Department begin, for the first time, to work together.

"Eighty percent of the homicides in Chicago are black on black homicides," said Tio Hardiman, the executive director of Ceasefire.

Hardiman, who grew up in the gang-riddled Henry Horner Housing complex, says Ceasefire’s job is to stop, in his words, "a guy from crossing the line."

"Therefore nobody goes to the cemetery. Nobody goes to the penitentiary," he noted as he sat in a west side park.

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Ceasefire began in 2000 as a public health initiative to try and put a stop to what was seen as an epidemic of violence in the city. The most controversial part of the program was recruiting ex-gang members and ex-felons to act as mediators.

Historically, the number of murders in Chicago has been much higher. Two decades ago, one year saw the city rack up more than 900 homicides.

But the nearly 40 percent jump in murders this year, even as overall crime goes down, has sparked a fierce debate on how to stop it.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Ceasefire is just one part of the city’s anti-violence arsenal, including boarding up vacant buildings, after school programs, curfews, and using legal RICO statutes to prosecute gang leaders.

There are an estimated 100,000 gang members in the city.

In the 1970s, gangs like the Blackstone Rangers and the Eastside Disciples, while deadly, existed with a top-down command structure.

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Today the gangs have splintered into more factions and the fights, and the shootings look more like anarchy than organization.

"There is no gang structure on the west side," said Fred Seaton. "It's just cliques."

"You have these renegade factions, anybody might shoot you now-a-days," said Hardiman.

On a recent summer evening, Patricia Bradley watched from her porch as teens played ball on her Austin neighborhood street.

"In order to stop this violence we have to have some jobs," she says, realizing that chronic poverty is, at times, combustible.

"Some of our young people are so full of rage and hate that you don’t know where to start," Bradley noted.

In 2011, Ceasefire says it worked with 1,100 high risk individuals over the course of more than 48,000 hours.

Asked if they at times feel hopeless, Derrick House spoke for Fred Seaton and Napoleon English.

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"I never feel hopeless," he said. "Never. I’m like, can’t give up on 'em. You can’t give up on 'em."

And Ceasefire officials say their work is paying dividends.

From January 2012 to May 2012, according to Hardiman, the Ceasefire zones have experienced about a 20 percent reduction in shootings and homicides this year already.

"In order to stop a homicide you have to have the ability to intercept a whisper," he says, noting, "it only takes about five seconds to pull the trigger."

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