Violence, Interrupted: A Closer Look at the Work of Chicago Activist and Violence Interrupter William Calloway
August 7, 2020 12:50 PM
William Calloway grew up in South Shore, the same Chicago neighborhood where Michelle Obama was born and raised. The community, which borders Jackson Park, the future home of the Obama Presidential Center, is brimming with rich culture and community-centered art. But decades of underinvestment and systemic discrimination have created the conditions for gun violence to surface.
Many South Shore residents, including Will, are all too familiar with the pain gun violence causes. As Will saw more and more lives cut short, he was inspired to take action, joining a long legacy of resilience and activism in South Shore. The young activist founded the faith-based nonprofit Christianaire to create the change he wanted to see in his community. Since then, he’s become a violence interrupter, dedicating his life to mediating violence and creating a more just Chicago.
See how Will is stepping up for his community while challenging misconceptions about the city we call home.
Q: There are a lot of misconceptions about Chicago. For people who associate Chicago with violence, what do you want them to know about your city and your neighborhood?
A: What a lot of people don’t know, is that when you’re talking about Chicago violence, you have to talk about a variety of things. It’s just not gun violence. You have to get to the underlying issues of what’s creating and causing this violence in our communities. You have to talk about broken households. You have to talk about mental health. You have to talk about poverty. You have to talk about the educational system. You have to talk about how people are eating day to day and their housing. We have to make sure that we’re talking about everything else that is contributing to this culture of violence in the city of Chicago.
I appreciate being given this platform to share my voice and to let everyone know that nobody is born a gang member. Nobody is born and says they want to grow up to be violent. All of these are learned behaviors from our environment, and a lot of our community members adapt to that lifestyle.
Specifically, I call South Shore home. The thing that I love most about our neighborhood is that it’s rich in culture, it’s rich in arts, it’s rich in activism. South Shore is one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. We’ve had our fair share of police violence and gun violence. We were in a food desert for seven years, but you know, through it all our community has shown the true spirit of Chicago, which is resiliency to work through a lot of the challenges we’ve been faced with. That’s something to be proud of, and I’m proud of this neighborhood on the Soul Coast.
Q: Can you tell me more about what it means to be a violence interrupter?
A: A violence interrupter is somebody who is dedicated to mediating violence between two parties or individuals. Our job is to prevent people from picking up a gun to settle an issue. We have to get to the root causes of it, because a lot of times we wait until an individual is cultivated in the gang lifestyle and by that time it’s even harder to bring them out. But if we can start early, if we can find the help and the resources they need and start showing them alternative routes to the limited things their community is offering, I believe then we will start seeing a cultural shift; the dynamics in Chicago and the conversation around violence in Chicago will hopefully change drastically. That’s why we keep going.
There are definitely times where this role can be very intense, though. I’ve been organizing or mediating gang tension in our community and a drive-by will occur. I think that’s something that’s important to point out. It can be stressful at times and it can be discouraging at times because we’re seeing a high level of violence in our community right now. We’re trying our best on the ground to do what we can with the limited resources that we have to fight.
Q: What are some of the prevention strategies you employ to fight gun violence in your community?
A: One of the violence prevention strategies that we’ve used successfully was creating a peace treaty in our neighborhood over the Fourth of July weekend. That happened through a coalition that me and a plethora of other community organizers created called #HitTheHood. And over the Fourth of July weekend, a lot of us in our respective communities went out and tried to do our best to curb violence by doing peaceful activities. Whether it was block parties, movies in the park, peace marches, peace rallies, or food giveaways. In addition to that, we reached out to rivaling factions and gang members in our neighborhood to help curtail some of the violence in our community. And it worked. We had no shootings over the Fourth of July weekend in our part of the neighborhood.
Q: That’s a wonderful success story. What sparked your passion for activism and this work? Why was it important to dedicate your life to doing this work?
A: I was inspired to do this work when I first became familiar with community activism. I was activated by the death of a young Black woman at the hands of a police officer. Her name was Rakia Boyd. At that time, I was just becoming more socially-conscious and socially-awakened to police violence and how disproportionately Black people were being killed by law enforcement, particularly White law enforcement, in the city of Chicago.
The deaths of so many who shared the same fate as Rakia, like Michael Wesley, Laquan McDonald, Paul O’Neill, Rashad McIntosh, and more, along with the community violence I see in our neighborhoods on a daily basis—that really moved me to take action and start Christianaire.
Q: You mentioned the tragic deaths of so many Chicagoans. I want to focus on Laquan McDonald for a moment. Back in 2015, you played an instrumental role in the release of the dash cam video of the officer-involved shooting that killed Laquan. What was that experience like?
A: Fighting for the release of the Laquan video had a major impact on my life and it hasn’t been the same since. The city of Chicago hasn’t been the same since we saw the officer-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald. As we know, Jason Van Dyke murdered Laquan McDonald on October 20th, 2014. For 400 days, the City of Chicago fought to keep the video showing Laquan McDonald being murdered hidden from the public. Myself, along with an independent journalist named Brandon Smith, filed the Freedom of Information Act to get the release of the video.
When I think about that experience and the role that I played in it, so much of it is associated with trauma, pain, but also jubilee. There are so many different emotions that, not only myself, but Black Chicago feels as a whole. For so long we was telling the City, we was telling the country that the police were disproportionately killing Black people, but we never had any proof. For the first time, it was undeniable. It was actually on camera. We saw a Chicago police officer shoot a 17-year-old boy as he walked away from him.
It just goes to show how long we’ve been fighting for social justice.
This fight has been going on long before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery. Laquan McDonald is a reminder of—at least in Chicago—of how far we’ve come and how much more further we have to go. Fighting for justice for Laquan encouraged me to be more resilient in my fight for social justice and to be a violence interrupter. Laquan ultimately died as a victim of gun violence.
It’s also a reminder that we have to do more to look at the racial inequalities that we’re faced in the city of Chicago and just understanding the dynamics of our city and what led up to the murder of Laquan McDonald and working to ensure something like that never happens again.
Q: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. To close, what can someone who is reading this piece do to support you and the many other brave violence interrupters you work with?
A: We could use all the help we can get. So many violence interrupters in the city of Chicago and at our organization try to do our best with the limited resources that we have. We’re always trying to expand on our work with the limited resources that we have and with our community influence, but it’s hard work. It’s hard work, and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
I’m grateful for my community. I live in one of the best, if not the best, neighborhood in the city of Chicago. If anyone would like to help us with our efforts to curb violence here in South Shore, and want to see these efforts replicated all across the city, you can visit www.christianaire.com. From making a donation, to coming out to a hit the hood initiative, to volunteering, to mentoring, we’ll take it. Find a way to get plugged in. We’d love to hear from you.