Eddie Bocanegra and I met at Farragut High School in Chicago’s Little Village, a predominantly Latin American neighborhood on the west side of the city. This was, as Bocanegra said, his “old pounding ground”. He pointed to a crack in a wall and laughed. “It’s like archeology,” he told me as he peeled off a piece of paint to reveal layers upon layers of coats underneath, each covering up graffiti that Bocanegra had contributed to as a child. We came here to talk about a recent incident. On March 29, a police officer shot dead Adam Toledo, aged 13, in an alley a few hundred feet from the school. The city released body cam footage of the incident last week, which sparked major protests. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called for a review of the Chicago Police Department’s policy on foot tracking. A city council said Toledo had been “executed”.
Bocanegra, who runs one of the most innovative violence prevention programs in the country, was forced to watch the video of Toledo’s death. At half past two in the morning, police responded to eight shots captured by a new electronic surveillance system that detects gunshots in certain parts of the city. When the police got to the corner, they confronted Toledo, who allegedly had been given a pistol by a twenty-one-year-old man who had just fired them. Toledo was running down an alley and an officer eventually caught up with him on a damaged wooden fence. The officer shouted: “Show me your hands!” In the video, Toledo appears to be throwing the gun on the ground with his back to the officer and turning quickly with his hands in the air. He’s wearing a white baseball cap and a Nike sweatshirt that says “JUST DO IT”. The officer fired once and punched Toledo in the chest. He died on the scene. Bocanegra’s wife, Kathryn, an assistant professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work, told Bocanegra not to see it, but he did – not just once, but twice. He told me that he had to figure out what happened for himself. He couldn’t sleep for three nights. It brought back memories of friends he’d seen shot dead in the same neighborhood. “It never goes away,” he said.
I wrote in my book about Bocanegra: “An American summer“And consider him a close friend. We met a decade ago when he was working as a violence disruptor for an organization called CeaseFire. In that job, he roamed the neighborhood brokering disputes before they got violent. The work got through to him, however in part because people often assumed he was still on the streets. In fact, Bocanegra confidently dressed himself in a way that challenged people’s assumptions: put on pants and sweaters like he’d stepped out of a J. Crew ad Like other violence interrupters, Bocanegra had a personal story and for a long time it was one of the first things he told you about himself – he assumed people would find out anyway, so he wanted them to hear from him He was a member of a local street gang, and when he was eighteen he shot dead in retaliation for a shootout that an elderly member of ied paralyzed a rival gang member. Bocanegra was imprisoned for fourteen years. Every year on the anniversary of the shooting – July 17th – he fasts and visits people in trouble, often because they lost a loved one to murder or imprisonment. His life’s work aims to give back and try to make amends for what he did.
Bocanegra, 45, now runs READI Chicago, a program aimed at young men who are among the most likely in town to be shot or shot. READI identifies them through a combination of human intelligence and data. It’s a population that most organizations don’t want to work with. The men get jobs, which is nothing new. But they also need to attend group cognitive behavioral therapy sessions to provide tools for participants to deal with their trauma. In recent years, the field of violence prevention – led in part by Bocanegra’s efforts – has focused on identifying signs of trauma in people whose lives have been touched by violence: insomnia, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, self-medication, flashbacks. “They’re looking for a place to tell their stories,” said Bocanegra of the therapy sessions. “Sometimes they don’t stop talking.” Representatives from half a dozen cities visited READI Chicago to find ways to replicate the program. Earlier this month, Bocanegra was invited to a ceremony at the White House, where President Joe Biden Identified new measures to curb gun violence, including evidence-based community interventions.
According to researchers from the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, and Cornell University’s Crime Lab evaluating Bocanegra’s program, early data suggests READI is keeping more than six hundred men safer than a control group who didn’t participate Program. Even so, last year ten young men who passed through the program were killed on the street. One evening in October, Bocanegra called me and sounded worried. He told me that Marc Nevarez, a young man Bocanegra cared for as a child – someone he adored – had been shot in the buttocks while fleeing from the police. He was carrying a gun. “But shot from behind?” Bocanegra asked rhetorically. “We all want public safety,” he said. “But we want public safety without people getting killed.” In the case of Nevarez’s shots, as in the case of Toledo, the police made initial statements that the officers had been exposed to “an armed encounter”. In Toledo’s case, he was unarmed when he was shot. In Nevarez’s case, he fled the police. “Do it right man,” said Bocanegra. “That’s why we find it difficult to trust the police.”
Even before Toledo’s death, confidence in the Chicago Police Department was low. In 2014, a police officer shot and killed seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, and the city initially refused to post a dash cam video of the incident. When it was finally released a year later, it showed that McDonald was shot sixteen times while walking away from an officer. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice released a damning report that found that Chicago police had long used excessive force, particularly against minorities. Police shot five people, two of whom were fatal, over a period of two months last summer. In the city, in 2020, there was a fifty-five percent increase in murder compared to the previous year, which recorded seven hundred and eighty murders. (Chicago isn’t the only city where the number of murders has increased. Los Angeles was up thirty-seven percent year-over-year, New York was forty-three percent, Louisville was sixty-one percent Phoenix, forty-six percent.)
Bocanegra and I walked across the rugged high school football pitch to where Toledo had been shot. Someone had painted a colorful mural on the wooden fence that said, “WE NEED EVERYONE ELSE.” The people had left behind carnations and daisies as well as prayer candles and objects that were reminiscent of Toledo’s youth: basketballs, a soccer ball, a “Star Wars” game, a stuffed animal. Toledo’s young age not only made the shooting particularly tragic, but also targeted his family. In an interview with CNN, the chief of the fraternal police force, John Catanzara, described Toledo as a gang member and as a “poor” and “misguided” child. A local councilor said at a press conference, “This young man had no one.” On social media, people blamed his mother. A freelance columnist, Ray Hanania, wrote on Facebook: “Toledo’s mother should be charged with complicity in the murder.” Bocanegra can’t help but think of his own mother, who moved to Texas after being in prison from Bocanegra, partly to protect his younger brothers and also because she felt tarnished by his crime. Bocanegra knows what people thought – that his mother was responsible for the fact that she could have done more. When he spoke of the guilt on Toledo’s mother, he said to me: “It’s bullshit. That’s what people said about my parents. “