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Criminologist David Kennedy '80 Talks Transition from Swarthmore to Fighting Street Violence with David Sterngold '12

Daily GazetteMaking Ceasefire Happen: Q&A with David Kennedy '80

By David Sterngold '12 
April 16, 2012

David Kennedy '80 is one of the country's best known criminologists. Since the 1980s, Kennedy has worked in cities across the country to implement solutions to street violence; in the 1990s he directed Operation Ceasefire, a project in Boston that reduced youth violence in the city by 60 percent. Kennedy detailed his experiences in his 2011 book Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.

Kennedy will give a public lecture at Swarthmore this Wednesday. Last week,The Daily Gazette's David Sterngold spoke with Mr. Kennedy about his transition from Swarthmore student to urban crime fighter, and about our nation's problem of urban violence....

How did you go from studying at Swarthmore to studying street violence?

Well, I went from Swarthmore up to Boston, and after I'd been in Boston for a few years I realized all I'd ever been good at was learning stuff. And the only way I could think of to make a living learning stuff-that didn't involve going back to school-was to try to learn to be a writer.

So that's what I set myself to.  And I was doing magazine writing, I was doing some freelancing, science writing, I really wanted to get myself to a point where I could-in the best of all possible worlds-work for The New Yorker or write nonfiction books or something like that.

And part of what happened along the way was that I got a job with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  Basically as an investigative journalist.  And I started getting assignments in criminal justice.  And what that meant in practice-because again this was the mid 1980s and the crack epidemic was just picking up-was that I started going around the country looking at innovative policing, much of which had to do with the crack epidemic and crack market, and that was the biggest issue in a lot of cities.

Starting in about 1985 I began walking crack markets all over the country.  And what was going on in those neighborhoods was horrendous beyond anything I had ever seen before.  Without really being conscious of it I was captured by that.  I had a very personal, very reflexive reaction to what I saw, which was: "this is just completely unacceptable, we need to do something about this."  And I fell in with these folks working on policing, serving a kind of apprenticeship with them.  And without entirely realizing it over the next ten years I became part of that world.

And when I got my writing chops to the point that by my own plans it was time to stop being a staff writer and doing my own stuff, I realized that I had a choice.  I could do that, which had stayed my intent all the way along, or I could really throw myself into this public safety work.  Part of what was both really gratifying and very scary about sitting down to write Don't Shoot two years ago was that I was finally doing what I had meant to do all that time.  This is not an academic book; in it's own way it's actually a work of experimental nonfiction.  And it was pretty scary to finally step up to that....

Can you describe your experience here at Swarthmore?  Were there any classes you took or activities you did here that have informed your work?

I was a philosophy major and a history minor.  I don't pretend that either that work or my time at Swarthmore in any direct way ended up informing what I did later on.  But it is certainly true that particular pieces of it turned out to be relevant.

What really does come out of my time at Swarthmore are two things.  One is a way to hold yourself accountable for learning about things.  That's one of the planks in the idea of what's valuable about a liberal arts education.  Nobody comes out of a place like Swarthmore saying "I know everything I need to know going forward."  What Swarthmore and places like it try to give you is the skills and the habits of mind that say: "it's your responsibility to understand things and to educate yourself, and here are the tools that you need in order to do that."  And Swarthmore did a very good job of that for me.

The other thing that Swarthmore gives you-something I took away-was being morally responsible, whatever that means in practice.  There's no simple textbook that says "this is and this isn't being an effective human being or citizen." But part of what the school tries to give people is the sense that you don't just have to be correct and well-read and learned, you also have a responsibility to be a good citizen-whatever that means in practice.  So something that I brought with me that a lot of my more learned peers didn't was this very powerful drive to be effective.  I wanted to see something happen.

A discussion of David Kennedy's work also recently appeared in The Independent (U.K.): To win the war on gangs, you have to make their members cry


In Boston, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gang murders doubled in a few years. Tough talk, and long prison sentences, weren't working, so a Harvard academic called David Kennedy decided to help police and youth workers try something new. He summoned gang members for "call-ins". He challenged their ideas of loyalty, and their codes of "honour." He told them about a 13-year-old girl who had been killed by a stray bullet, and asked them if they thought this was OK. He brought in a mother whose son was murdered. She was, she told them, "so broken" that she couldn't look after her other sons. "If you let yourself get killed," she said, "your mother will be standing here."

People who left gangs were told they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction. People who didn't were told that if they committed a crime, the police would go after every single other member of the gang for every single crime they could find. If one suffered, they'd all suffer. You want solidarity? You got it.

It worked. Nine months after the first "call-in," gang-related murders were down by 50 per cent. It has worked in Glasgow, too, where Karyn McCluskey, the head of intelligence at Strathclyde police, decided to try Kennedy's model. At the first "call-in," in 2008, a pensioner told 120 gang members that he was too scared to walk past them to get his pension. An A&E consultant described the terrible injuries he had to treat. A mother talked about how her son was attacked by a gang with machetes, and lost his fingers as he tried to protect his face. "We had gang members crying," says McCluskey, "because regardless of how good or bad their parents are, they love their mums. That," she says, "was the most powerful thing in the U.S., and it was the most powerful thing here."...

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