Can This Man Save Chicago’s Murder Epidemic?
Photos: Allan Baxter/Scott Olson/Getty Images

Can This Man Save Chicago’s Murder Epidemic?

With decades of brokering peace between gangs, community leader Bishop Omar Jahwar has a plan for quelling violence in the perilous city

Bishop Omar Jahwar has dedicated himself to saving lives — and violence-plagued cities around the country could use his services now more than ever. After growing up in the church with his father as a pastor, Jahwar was hired by the state of Texas at 20 years old to negotiate peace terms between incarcerated gang members. He’s since united more than 400 gang members to negotiate the first peace treaty between Dallas-area Bloods and Crips, spoken at the White House multiple times, and advised Russian officials on gang-related issues.

Hard-hit cities around the nation could use some of that resolution work. Protests in response to police brutality and pandemic-spawned health concerns and unemployment have contributed to increased gun violence and a spike in firearms purchases. It’s some scary shit, especially in Chicago, which in July experienced its most violent month in the past 28 years (at least 107 reported murders, according to the Chicago Tribune). While the issues seem intractable, Jahwar is confident that these situations can be mediated. In a powerful conversation, the peacemaker details his approach to conflict resolution, shares his ideals for the future of police in America, and explains how Chicago’s streets became so dangerous — and the uncomfortable path to reversing course.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LEVEL: When it comes to resolving gang and street violence, how do your methods differ from those of others?

Bishop Omar Jahwar: Most people think that violent people and irrational ideas are impenetrable, and that the person is incorrigible. I don’t see that. I know that there is redemptive value in people who do egregious things. The human spirit in your soul is always trying to fight out of that moment; you just don’t know how, so you get stuck and it’s on a repeat cycle. You can pause the tape and put something else in there, but you gotta know how. If you don’t, a person can get consumed by what they’re dealing with.

Another thing people don’t understand is the power of an influencer. When you get influencers, no matter what level they’re on — whether it be gangs, political, whatever — they really do move the chair. Ninety-eight percent of the group follows and only 2% leads. Most people are just reacting to an environment that says this is the way to make it through this moment. If I can get them out of that moment, we can get them to go from survival to true destiny.

How do you get them out of that moment?

You have to create a sustainable pause in the thinking pattern. Imagine a graph where you have negative on one side going to nine, and positive on the other side going to nine. Negative nine is like a Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer; you rarely get those kinds of people. Most people are a negative two or negative three. They’re overwhelmed with an environment in which the best-case scenario for them is to react. All you have to do is pull the person to zero. At zero, you can start actively looking at your surroundings and making true evaluations.

I create a box that they’re willing to be put in. In the box is what you love, what you hate, what you fear, and what you need. I start establishing who you really are, make sure you understand you, and then you can start understanding your reactions better. That creates a pause, because normally they’re not really examining that way. The only thing they are examining is what’s happening right now. Then you create a code of conduct. If you get mutual vulnerability, you can establish different rules of engagement. But the only way they are willing to be vulnerable with you is if they know that you understand the terrain. If you come in with a certain amount of integrity, they will yield and give you a chance to apply your healing to their sickness.

From your experience, what has been more difficult: getting people to hear you out, or changing their thinking and behavior?

The hardest thing is to get a person to come to the table. Because normally you feel so rushed. You go into the hood, everybody’s driving fast and you aren’t going nowhere. Getting them to relax and reason together — that’s the hardest part. Once the person gets there, some of the natural instincts take over: “Is he telling me the truth or not? Is this a setup?” You have to be an advanced peer before they accept your leadership. Most people will come in and say “let me show you,” not “let me listen to you.” That’s the wrong approach. Just because our stories are similar doesn’t mean they’re the same. When you’re talking about violence, you cannot do drive-by analysis. You have to have true, in-depth understanding so you can really pull out those ideas that other people brush over. They’re critical when you’re trying to make an adjustment to someone’s life.

How involved have you been with efforts to mediate disputes in Chicago?

We spoke with two of my brothers. One, Torrey Barrett, has a violence program. And this other brother is very connected to the gangs that run there. I’m going to Chicago and I’m gonna set up a meeting with some of the leadership to talk about these ideas. I can give my perspective on why it has become what it is. It’s going to be tough, but there is a way to get these things back in order, and it’s necessary. When you see children executed, the randomness of the violence, the recklessness, it seems that the group is tone-deaf to what the world is going through — but they’re not.

“You can’t arrest your way out of it, you can’t grit your way out of it, and you can’t resource your way out of it. We’re at a tipping point where we have to try a radical new strategy or else we will be doomed.”

How is the situation in Chicago different from other cities?

I talked to a leading detective who is now working in Silicon Valley. He was one of the ones who got the gang leaders in prison. He said, “I did the worst thing I could for my city, thinking I was different when I arrested all of these leaders.” Once you tear down some of those housing projects, you litter the field with people going to different places with the same seeds of destruction inside of them, without having a leader. You gave room to the rise of the terror. You can’t arrest your way out of it, you can’t grit your way out of it, and you can’t resource your way out of it. We’re at a tipping point where we have to try a radical new strategy or else we will be doomed.

I would’ve asked who runs stuff and I would have sat down with those people and said, “We have to figure out how these people you represent live.” Then we don’t create an underground world where only you and a few others benefit while those you love are decimated by it. That’s mutual vulnerability. Having a military solution isn’t gonna solve that. It’s going to take us being extremely intrusive, reengaging those leaders and saying, “We can’t afford you to be on the sideline right now with your record and your past, because there is a need that is far greater.”

In some areas, there’s been increased violence in the past few months, like the recent shooting outside of a funeral in Chicago. What impact do you think the pandemic and the protests have had regarding violence there?

Nothing can trigger you more than a sense of fatality and you don’t know where it’s coming from. With this pandemic, it’s grandma, papa, uncle, everybody’s dying. You get that fatalistic idea: We’re gonna die anyway so I’m gonna take chances. If I go, I’m gonna take ’em all out with me… That’s where you get that heightened aggression. It used to be when the economy was bad. When you layer that with folks saying I can’t go hustle, it becomes aggression. That’s one idea that has pushed people to their breaking point. Another thing is when you cannot grieve, you don’t truly have closure. This person is dead from Covid and that person is shot, but I can’t go to the hospital. You don’t have that process, so it’s hard for you to understand what happened. You’re living in a suspended reality. It’ll come crashing down once you realize how many people are gone, how life has changed — but imagine that from the bottom looking up. It looks like a fire raging down to consume you.

This racial animus and tension has added to the idea of lawlessness being the rule. In the street, the reputation has to be the rule, because you can’t go to the police. So when you’re gonna eliminate law enforcement as part of a higher level of integrity, you’re really in a dangerous way. The old ways are real and the temptations have returned. We have to be careful with this vitriolic hole that you set, because it has some unintended consequences that you may not understand.

There’s definitely a movement right now looking for ways to stop police violence. What role should police have when it comes to fighting violence like this?

They’re an important piece of the puzzle for lawfulness and for justice. They have to be some of our chief negotiators as it relates to life and death in its rawest form. I understand that they are important. The thing about civility: It has to be inside of you. It can’t be imposed on you. So your civil structure has to be what comes out of you, not what is placed upon you through handcuffs and that kind of facility.

A friend of mine, Bob Woodson, said you cannot threaten a kamikaze pilot with death because he’s gonna say, “death is what I do.” So having more police positioned in the right way is important, but it’s not as important as finding that dignity and finding that wholeness that’s inside of us. That causes you to produce a different type of you who says, I don’t steal anymore — not because I’m scared of getting caught, but because I’m not a thief. It’s those kinds of transformative ideas that then make policing a form of partnership and a necessary part of accountability. The police don’t become your reason for or reason against; they’re just part of the deal. Right now, police are told it’s a war zone, so put your war clothes on.

Can you share a specific instance where you were successful with stopping violence and didn’t think you’d be able to?

There were two rival gangs. A Hispanic gang, they had already put out a hit on one guy — they stabbed a guy in the head a few times. I got called in because that was the green light for them to go all out. The thing that changed the process was one of the leaders said, “We don’t deserve a reprieve. We don’t deserve mercy, we don’t deserve grace, but we are asking for it.” That was surprising because that was a real tough guy.

It was a moment where the leader said, “I’m gonna be a leader rather than a dictator. I’m gonna be a server rather than a sheriff.” It made his other members yield. It showed me that servant leadership works no matter what the issues are.

I used to be a counselor at a residential center for kids who’d gotten into trouble with the law. A lot of the instances of violence that I’d hear about weren’t gang stuff; it’d be two people having an issue with each other and not having any conflict resolution skills.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you stay in survival mode. In survival mode, suspending the rules is okay because it’s dog-eat-dog, us versus them. If you’ve convinced yourself that that’s where you are on the social ladder, you accept that these things come with it. We had a code when we did gang intervention where we’d say “real men stand alone.” You hear them say “they” and “we represent” and we go, “nah, this is you and him. Don’t try to create a wall over a personal beef.” When you get into this ideology that says I am in survival mode, it heightens your thoughts about what you are willing to do to survive: If I am not prepared to be a warrior, I will be a victim or a casualty. When you try to get out of that warrior mentality for one second, they say you got caught slipping. So you get caught in that schizophrenia where I gotta stay high, I gotta stay drunk, I gotta keep the music on. I gotta keep myself in this euphoric state so that I am prepared to do whatever is necessary.

What we say is if you’re in a jungle, you need to be more human, not more animal. The strong may move the weak, but the wise move them all. That’s the kind of nuance that we have to show people. We say, if you think that way, you’re going to become a leader and a negotiator. If I can show you who you are and what value you bring to the fold, you will understand.