Ceasing Fire: Anti-Gun Violence Work in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

 
Graphic by Kurt Bielema

Uni High, in collaboration with WILL, present the following special podcast series, “Changing the Narrative: Preventing Gun Violence in Champaign-Urbana.” Record and add this audio.
Written by Anya Kaplan-Hartnett

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Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Gun violence is a pervasive issue for our community. According to the News Gazette, the daily newspaper of record in Champaign, Illinois, 35 people in Champaign-Urbana have died due to gun-related incidents between 2014 and 2019 alone, which demonstrates a marked increase in the frequency and severity of these violent events. However, our community has responded with determination and compassion in order to work towards a more peaceful future. This podcast delves into the essential anti-violence work being done in Champaign-Urbana. We’ve interviewed local activists, organizers, politicians, and entrepreneurs to learn more about counteracting gun violence. This is “Ceasing Fire: Anti-Gun Violence Work in Champaign-Urbana,” the first in our series, “Changing the Narrative, Preventing Gun Violence on Champaign-Urbana. From Uni High, I’m Hozaifa Bhutta, a current sophomore and a member of the Class of 2023. 

Recent years have seen the creation of many local organizations focused on counteracting gun violence. Whether they’re striving for legislative change, youth empowerment, or community engagement, these organizations play a vital role in changing the narrative surrounding gun violence. We’ve interviewed the leaders of five such organizations to learn more about their work to ensure a more peaceful community.

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Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
In 2016, the City of Champaign and the City of Urbana collaborated to create CU Fresh Start, a program which addresses local gun violence by bringing together law enforcement and community leaders. Chief Seraphin, who heads Urbana’s police department, speaks about this coordinated effort.

Bryant Seraphin
... you have all these different groups stepping up to help when it comes to gun violence because it’s not just about a gun and the police. When I started, if there was gun violence people would say ‘well what are the police doing about it? Are we doing extra patrols? Do you have more detectives assigned to these cases? What are the police doing?’ And we’re clearly a part of it, but we’re not the only part of it. So why did somebody go resort to gun violence? What sort of life choices has that person made running along? And I think those are where some of our other efforts are being aimed. To sort of help those people who maybe made a series of bad choices to help them make better choices and that’s what Fresh Start kinda does… And I think now we’re doing a much better job of taking this holistic, multidisciplinary approach to gun violence.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator This life-changing initiative is modeled after criminologist David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” program, which gained national recognition after its implementation in Boston over twenty years ago. Tracy Parsons, who serves as the City of Champaign’s community relations manager, discussed his involvement with CU Fresh Start.

Tracy Parsons
CU Fresh Start is probably the most difficult project I’ve been involved in and I’ve had to put together. The philosophy and so if you talk about David Kennedy’s book and Boston, “Don’t Shoot,” and “Ceasefire,” and those things which you learned about in Boston, that is one of the first projects that really looks at working with the formerly incarcerated and those individuals most likely to be involved in gun violence, either as a perpetrator or a victim. And so when you talk about you want to bring that population to the table with law enforcement, with community members, with victim-impact population, so those are people who have lost family members or are aware of people that they’ve lost friends to gun violence. And put us all in a room together to work on solutions, boy that is tough work, right? And so that’s what we’re trying to do.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
CU Fresh Start identifies individuals who have been involved with violence and invites them to participate in community call-ins, which are held a few times each year. These public call-ins are meant to serve as a wake-up call to educate participants about the harm that local violence causes.

Tracy Parsons
So the call-in also does a couple of other things. One is, it does let these guys know and it does let their gangs or cliques or their associates or other people know that as a community, we are serious about addressing our gun violence. So these are very public events, it gives us a chance to reinforce that message that the gun violence has got to stop and will stop and we’re going to do everything that we can and the other part about the call-in is that it just does put on notice individuals that we want to change and we want to work with. And that’s a different approach.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
We asked Deb Feinen, the mayor of Champaign, to describe what it’s like to participate in a community call-in.

Deb Feinen
Kind of overwhelming emotionally. You’re exhausted when it’s done. The room setting is that we have members of the community who are invited to participate, it’s not just open to anyone. They hang posters of people who have been convicted or have been killed from gun violence in the community, so they’re kind of giant posters that are hung around the wall with, you know, a picture of somebody with, you know, fifty years in jail, or a life sentence, or whatever it may be. The community is facing the group of panelists who are going to be speaking, the young men come out, and I say men because we’ve never had a woman come out, and they have their backs to the audience. We are facing them directly. We all get to speak to the people who are there, the identified young men and they’re identified by probation and police as people that we think are involved in gun crimes or kind of around the edges of gun crime. And we basically tell them why they need to stop the behavior, that if they don’t stop the behavior, they will be prosecuted and that if they do stop the behavior, we will connect them with a social worker, case manager, who will do everything they can to try to help them succeed in a changed life.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
After the initial call-in, participants in the CU Fresh Start program gain access to essential resources to help them succeed. A CU community partner, Reverend Willie Comer, who serves as the Executive Director of the East Central Illinois Youth for Christ and the pastor of Berean Covenant Church, explains this approach.

Willie Comer
Then, they are offered an opportunity to take a fresh start and to say, “Listen, if you take this fresh start, we are going to help you get your license. We are going to help you look for an apartment. We are going to help you look for employment.” So, it’s a fresh start and I think that it is a tremendous program that is needed because the rate of returning back to prison after getting out, because there is no place to get a fresh start is very, very high. And I think this gives us the ability to kind of change that.  Well, we’ve got men young now who are working, who have been not in trouble, who have not picked up guns again. They are taking care of families. And they actually have become role models in the community in terms of how not to return back. Now, has it been 100 percent? No, we’ve had some people who got caught up again and got in trouble. But, we’ve had some guys who got in trouble but it wasn’t with guns. You know they may have did something else. So, I love the successes that we have. If we have five successes out of 30, that, to me, is a success story because if we can get one to change and put down guns and say, “I’m not picking up a gun,” that’s amazing.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
The CU Fresh Start program is meant to provide an intervention for adults who are already involved with gun violence, though Reverend Comer believes that peacebuilding can also take the form of violence prevention for young people. He shared about an unexpected approach to anti-violence work: midnight basketball.


Willie Comer
If you look at history of midnight basketball, it’s not something that I came up with off the top of my head. Midnight basketball was started and was running in the late seventies and early eighties during a time when it was a heavily drug populated time. In Chicago, actually the US government funded a program called Midnight Basketball program and they had tremendous success with it and we had successes when we did it in Chicago and we’re having success here. We are averaging about 100 kids a night in both gyms.

Because Friday night, between eight and 12 midnight is a time when most young people are getting in trouble. It’s when they don’t have any place to go and they don’t have anything to do [...] So they need a place to go, otherwise there is just going to be hanging out, so if they are going to hang out, we need to create a place for them to hang out that’s going to be safe and where people are going to be able to - that’s going to love them and teach them to love one another.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Another program designed for young people is TRUCE, which was founded by Patricia Avery in 2013 as part of the Champaign-Urbana Area Project. TRUCE works with students, families, schools, and mentors to provide wraparound support and increased educational opportunities for young people. We spoke to Joshua Payne, a longtime member of the Champaign Community Coalition, about TRUCE’s approach.

Joshua Payne
Well first let me say as I spoke to that, that is a very structured, multi-layered, multi-organizational effort in doing stuff like this, like we don’t play when it comes to these kids and we understand that in order to do that it has to be multi-coordinated, there has to be different parties, because no one organization and no one initiative can do everything. You know there are so many kids out there alone because we just lost a 14-year-old boy. These shootings are getting younger and younger in age, man. It’s so sad, there’s so many kids that need to be impacted that need that interpersonal relation with somebody who is not somebody who they see every day, but is somebody that looks like them, somebody that they might look up to.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Payne elaborates on the importance of building strong relationships with the young people TRUCE serves.

Joshua Payne
I stop violence by getting to know him, bro. By just tapping him on the shoulder and giving him my phone number and saying I’m here, and let’s go take a little car ride, or let’s go take a walk, or let’s go play some hoops, or let’s go get something to eat, you know what I’m saying? And talk to you about these issues then you gain my trust and I can start to get you to look at the bigger picture. And tell you boom—I help you along the way, let’s bring these trauma counselors, let’s bring some private tutors in, keep your academics up, build you up academically, build you up mentally, maybe go to, if you interested in church, we can do whatever, build you up spiritually. Whatever it is that’s comfortable with the mother, the family, and the child, through that short-term crisis.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Organizations such as TRUCE often collaborate with law enforcement to build community trust and add another level of support for young people. Joshua Payne explained that the Champaign Community Coalition has led to an amazing level of collaboration between officers and activists.

Joshua Payne
The chief that they have in Champaign now, Anthony Cobb, he is phenomenal he is the first police chief that I’ve ever seen, at his level, and other chiefs are now following in his footsteps, that have made a conscious visible effort that you can see it the transparency is there that he is really trying to put community relations and being visible like a number one priority and that means a lot to me and being willing to work with formerly incarcerated individuals and population. These are very important things that we need in this community to change the narrative, to change our social norms, to change the direction of our conversations, to end the epidemic of violence and get things in place that are more so innovative.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Chief Cobb’s dedication to community policing has strengthened connections between the Champaign police department and the community they serve. He shared about his early experiences with this new approach to police work.

Anthony Cobb
As a community policing officer, I faced a lot of challenges, because my sole role was to develop relations with citizens, and to act upon information I get from them. And it was kind of challenging when we started community policing because a lot of the officers thought it was a soft approach on crime, and I actually got nicknamed the “Lollipop Cop.” I’m supposed to go out, knock on doors, hand out lollipops, make everyone happy and not do real police work. So that kind of rubbed me a little bit but it challenged me at the same token because I knew the importance of getting to know your residents. Plus, I grew up in the neighborhood. So, I took it on as a challenge and as I started talking with residents and let them help me identify, prioritize, and develop what would my workload look like, how we would take on problems in the community. I went from being a lollipop cop to leading the department for three years straight, and with reports taken and arrests made. So that really opened the eyes of the other guys who were out there trying to do good police work. They found I was getting more felony arrests, I was taking more people to jail, and I was having better cases than they had responding to 9-1-1 calls. I’m getting information from the public and they’re calling me directly. And it really started to win over. Some of the guys said, “Maybe the lollipop cop is not a bad approach.”

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
The organizations we’ve discussed so far operate on a local level, emphasizing the power of interpersonal connection to uplift people and end the cycle of violence. Another approach to reducing gun violence comes from the national fight for stronger gun legislation. Local mom and activist Jen Straub, who has held leadership positions within the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, discusses the national organization’s efforts to reduce gun violence.

Jen Straub
Moms Demand Action is the biggest grassroots gun violence prevention organization in our country, and I feel like just the sheer numbers that we have and the data we can collect with that many people and the voice that we have in our nation with that many people all over the country can be very effective. It’s very powerful.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Like many violence-prevention organizations, Moms Demand Action took shape in response to tragedy.

Jen Straub
So, Moms Demand Action began the day after the Sandy Hook shooting. When Shannon Watts kind of got really fed up with the idea that 20 first graders were shot at their school. And she didn’t know exactly what to do about it, but she knew that other movements like Mothers Against Drunk Driving were successful at changing public safety concerns. And so she made a Facebook page and decided that she was going to gather people who were interested in fighting this issue. And it caught on, it caught on so much that soon there were chapters in every state in the country. And now we are over five million members strong.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Although Moms Demand Action is a national organization, it operates on a local level through hundreds of area chapters. Jen Straub discusses the organization’s efforts in our community.

Jen Straub
Yeah, so locally, in Champaign-Urbana, we have had the great fortune of working with the Community Coalition. We try to have someone from our organization, or more than one person from our organization, at every community coalition meeting. We work very closely with TRUCE, kind of supporting the work that they do and doing what we can to work together. We work with different churches. Our faith outreach lead tries to work with other communities of faith to kind of do educational work and do cooperative work that way. We have an educator’s lead who’s working on combating legislation that arms teachers or allows concealed carry on campuses. We table at farmers markets and we march in the Pride Parade and we table at Jettie Rhodes and Champaign-Urbana Days. We have a great event every year, the first weekend of June, called Wear Orange, which is centered on survivors in our community, people who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence. So, we do a lot to try to engage our community and to be active with other organizations helping to work towards these same goals.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Dealing with gun violence involves a multidisciplinary approach, as illustrated by the wide range of anti-violence organizations we’ve covered in this podcast. Whether working to lower violence rates one person at a time or pushing to get new laws passed, the fight against gun violence is far from finished. Joshua Payne illustrates how we all can contribute to putting an end to gun violence.

Joshua Payne
First and foremost, everyone can help stop gun violence by raising awareness around the issues for the youth to encourage people to volunteer with their youth, work with their youth, and just be visible for youth, and be a positive role model because a lot of these kids who are doing this don’t have any positive role models in their life.

It doesn’t matter if you didn’t come from a neighborhood or area where violence took place. You don’t have to be some gangster, some former prison inmate to tell somebody to put the gun down and save a life or tell them that it’s not worth to fight that person, or it’s not worth to have that hatred in your heart towards that person. You never know when a potential act of violence may be sitting right in front of you, and you could be the first person to have that violence-preventative measure in mind to talk someone down.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Payne believes that anti-violence work is grounded in interpersonal empathy. Rather than criticizing those who engage in gun violence, his approach emphasizes understanding the systemic discrepancies which have led a person to violence. Connecting individuals with essential resources and opportunities helps change their behavior, ensuring a more peaceful community for everyone.

Tracy Parsons
Now the other side of it though is most of these guys are interested in change, they just don’t know how to do it. Again, as I shared with you, they didn’t have success in school, they probably never finished school. They don’t have high skills as it relates to reading and writing and doing some of those things to help make them more employable. So, I would agree with David Kennedy’s assessment that most people want to do well and do better. They just need the help and the supports to do it. That’s why it’s important that we have all of the programs, service providers, talking and working together. That’s why it’s important that we create new ways for individuals to get involved in Fresh Start, so that we can work with as many of these individuals who want help, to help them.

Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Organizations such as CU Fresh Start and TRUCE provide an inspiring example for community peacebuilding. Thanks to the efforts of these local leaders, there is hope for a better future, not only for our town but for the nation as a whole.

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Hozaifa Bhutta, Narrator
Thank you for listening to is “Ceasing Fire: Anti-Gun Violence Work in Champaign-Urbana,” the first episode of Changing the Narrative: Preventing Gun Violence in Champaign-Urbana, a student-produced podcast by Uni High’s oral history project team. Each episode in this series focuses on a component of anti-violence work, including community organizations, gun legislation, mental health, and trauma recovery. All interviews featured in this podcast were conducted in May 2019 by Uni’s eighth-grade class. Please tune in next week for a discussion of our state’s gun legislation, featuring perspectives from gun owners and pro-gun control activists alike. Check out the WILL website at will.illinois.edu/illinoisyouthmedia.

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This is the first in a four-part podcast series, Changing the Narrative: Preventing Gun Violence in Champaign-Urbana, produced by Uni High students in collaboration with WILL.

This podcast series gives a voice to individuals in the Champaign-Urbana community who are working to prevent gun violence. Through the perspective of our interviewees, we learn about efforts to combat the rising number of gun shootings occurring in Champaign County. This project hopes to bring light on how gun violence affects our community and provides a space for discussion on how firearms can function more safely as a part of our society.

In this episode, "Ceasing Fire: Anti-Gun Violence Work in Champaign-Urbana," representatives from CU Fresh Start, TRUCE, Moms Demand Action, the Champaign Coalition and other groups trying to end gun violence describe their programs and efforts. Featuring: Bryant Seraphin, Urbana Chief of Police; Tracy Parsons, City of Champaign Community Relations Manager; Deborah Frank Feinen, Mayor of Champaign; Reverend Willie Comer, Executive Director of Central Illinois Youth for Christ and pator of Berean Covenant Church; Joshua Payne, TRUCE/Champaign Area Community Project; Anthony Cobb, Champaign Chief of Police and Jen Straub, Champaign-Urbana Moms Demand Action.

This podcast series is a part of Uni High School’s Oral History Project, featuring interviews conducted in 2019 by Uni’s class of 2023, and features interviews with people on all sides of the gun debate. 

Editor's Note:

Since the interviews featured in this podcast were conducted, organizers of CU Fresh Start announced changes to the program in February 2020. Since then, the call-in approach described in the podcast has been altered and a new outreach approach has been implemented called “custom notification.” Concerns and changes to the program were outlined at a February 25, 2020 Champaign City Council meeting, according to  The News-Gazette, the daily newspaper of record in Champaign, Illinois. A February 12, 2021 city manager’s report to the Champaign City Council about efforts to address community violence explained that with the custom notification approach a “small team of law enforcement, social services representatives, and community victim/impact representatives” meet with participants who have either had a prior gun arrest or recent involvement in a violent crime. Families and agencies may also refer people to the program. The report states that, “Custom notifications and referrals have a significantly higher engagement rate than call-ins and allow those individuals identified to receive the focused deterrence message without the publicity or associated shame of a call-in.”

Student Producer’s Note:

Interviews for this podcast series were conducted in spring 2019. Since then, shootings in Champaign County have increased. According to the News Gazette, the daily newspaper of record in Champaign, Illinois, there were 266 shootings, 12 fatal, in Champaign County in 2020 – about twice as many as in 2019. On May 14, 2021, Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb reported that shooting incidents in the City of Champaign are up 113 percent in 2021 compared to that point in 2020. Since then, more shootings have occurred in the city and county, including the fatal shooting of Champaign Police Officer Chris Oberheim who was killed in an early morning shoot out on May 19. The suspect, Darion Marquise Lafayette, was also killed in the shootout. Oberheim was the first Champaign police officer killed in the line of duty since 1967.

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