Growing up in the urban core of Kansas City, Mo., Marquell Harris always knew there was something greater for him beyond the streets.
During his freshman year of high school, Harris played basketball on his school’s team. He hoped one day to go to college and play ball.
“I played in ninth grade, and I looked up and it was senior year,” Harris said. “I hadn’t played in 10th and 11th grade because I was out in the streets.”
Harris had approx. fifteen friends going into school. By the time of graduation, he was one of the few who finished school.
Spending time with his friends on the streets of east Kansas City, Harris recalled encountering the Kansas City Police Department. When the KCPD would pick them up, officers would comment to Harris that he must not hang out with his friends very often. He attributed this to his laidback attitude and cool, calm demeanor.
“I come from a background of people who—and it may not be their fault—it’s hard for them to see beyond the block,” Harris said. “I’ve always known that life is bigger than the block.”
After high school, Harris made the decision to postpone college. He had a daughter whom he needed to provide for.
Occasionally he would spend his time playing basketball at a local community center. One day while playing, Harris complained about needing work. A representative from Aim4Peace heard this complaint and offered him a position with their organization.
Aim4Peace is a violence-prevention program that approaches violence from a public health perspective. They view violent behavior as a communicable disease and work closely with high-risk individuals to end the violence epidemic in Kansas City.
Members of Aim4Peace, including Harris, came to a communication studies class at UMKC to speak on the issue of violence and their work.
Harris worked for Aim4Peace as a violence interrupter. Violence interrupters reach out to high-risk members of the population. They seek to help these individuals make changes in their lives to move away from violent behavioral patterns.
Harris noted that high-risk people usually carry firearms or socialize with people who do.
“People who carry guns, people who are around people with guns, people who are released from prison, people who are in a gang,” Harris said. “We’re working with those people so that’s dangerous within itself.”
Sometimes interrupters will ride these people from place to place and occasionally enter their homes.
Interrupters also frequent places where violence tends to occur. They are trained to intervene when altercations arise and attempt to diffuse the situation.
“Say it’s just a liquor store or something. If you were gonna get some liquor or anything [on the weekend], you would be in and out,” Harris said. “We don’t hang out at places like this. We hang out at places. We’re doing the opposite of what’s safe.”
It’s a natural self-defense mechanism. If you see two people fighting over there in [a location], we’re gonna move out of the way. [Violence interruption] trains you to go to it. That took some getting used to.”
Salahuddein Abdul-Waali is a former violence prevention supervisor with Aim4Peace.
Abdul-Waali expressed similar concerns about the danger of his work.
“You’re always going to be in danger working with people who kill and shoot people,” Abdul-Waali said. “When you’re trying to build that connection with them.”
It is this connection which allows Aim4Peace to work closely with these people, helping them to prevent violent behavior like retaliation.
Abdul-Waali proposed a hypothetical situation. Say he knows that Person A shot and killed Person B. His next course of action is to meet with Person A, a difficult task because they may not trust him.
“Generally what you see is young people don’t trust people. And that’s not a bad thing because that’s a natural emotion to have reserves for people,” Abdul-Waali said. “Particularly when you’re doing things wrong at such an extreme that you’re killing people. Why would you trust somebody who’s trying to tap into your business?”
Explaining to Person A that his behavior potentially leads to consequences is Abdul-Waali’s next move. According to him these consequences could include Person A’s death, his family’s death and a life-sentence in prison.
What reason do high-risk individuals have to trust people like Harris and Abdul-Waali?
Aim4Peace typically hires individuals with “street credibility.” For Abdul-Waali this translates to experience on the streets of Kansas City as well as time spent in prison.
“When I got out of high school, I was sick and tired of education. Sick and tired of going to school. During the time when I got out of high school, the drug episode was really intense at that time,” Abdul-Waali said. “You see all the guys that you went to high school with driving all the fancy cars, the big wads of money. That’s what had my attention.”
Abdul-Waali remembered wanting to avoid responsibility. As a young man he had a desire to be committed to the streets, to be what was considered cool.
“So I got out into the streets and before I knew it I was part of a robbery gang,” he said. “I was robbing drug dealers. I had some friends who obviously murdered through the process and eventually that lifestyle caught up with me.”
Going to rob some dealers who had sold him bad drugs, Abdul-Waali was arrested. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison based on evidence planted by the prosecutor at his trial.
A lawyer was able to shorten Abdul-Waali’s sentence to 20 years, allowing him to leave prison earlier than expected.
“I came home with a renewed spirit,” he said. “I understood where I went wrong and what I wanted to do with my life.”
Abdul-Waali spent his time outside of prison working for various community organizations such as Youth Awareness Group, Habitat for Humanity, and the Boys and Girls Club. He also founded his own youth mentorship program, Today’s Boys, Tomorrow’s Men. During this time one of the young men enrolled in his program was murdered. Aim4Peace recruited him after this traumatic event.
Harris attributed his street credibility to his ability to make life off the streets enticing.
“That’s what we do. We make peace and being productive look sexy. A nine-to-five usually doesn’t look sexy if you look at TV or the movies,” Harris said. “What usually looks sexy is the millionaires, the big drug dealers.”
Both Harris and Abdul-Waali’s families were apprehensive about their work with Aim4Peace due to the dangers and risk associated with the job.
“My uncles and them used to see me [out working] and they weren’t too fond of it. Some of them used to tell me to get a real job,” Harris said, laughing. “My grandma always was [supportive]. I’m a grandma’s boy for real. She always believed in me. Once they saw that I stuck with it and they liked it and they started seeing me on the news and spitting it at speaking engagements, then it started coming to form for them. Like oh yeah, he stands up for something.”
Although he no longer works with Aim4Peace, Abdul-Waali recounted similar sentiments.
“My family was supportive of me because they were happy I was doing something spectacular with my life. But they were so worried,” Abdul-Waali said. “My mother’s happy I’m no longer with the movement because of all the violence. It was hard to quit that job because when you’re trying to right a wrong, it’s not an overnight process. And there’s going to be some collateral damage.”
For Harris, the risk is well worth the reward. He admitted taking far greater risks for much smaller purposes. In his eyes, working with Aim4Peace is a significant purpose.
Harris feels that whether he works with Aim4Peace or not, he still lives in a city plagued with violence and violent behavior.
“I just feel like with or without this job, I still gotta wake up every day and face these same adversities,” Harris said. “Why not face it with the education I have now? Why not face them with all the new things I know about violence?”
How do violence interrupters deal with putting their lives on the line for Aim4Peace?
Abdul-Waali recommends having healthy fear. In his opinion, fear is a natural human emotion. He would be lying if he said he was never scared.
However, his background helps him cope with this fear.
“You walk by faith and not by sight,” Abdul-Waali said. “When you’ve been from the street, you kinda get a little sense of security knowing that you came from the same geographic, the same behavior patterns with these people.”
Harris sees the effect his work with Aim4Peace has on those around him. It gives him the opportunity to lift those people up.
“This job provides me the platform to be able to show my friends that [life is bigger than the block], to show my peers that, to show every young man who’s willing to look at me or that I come across that you can be productive and you can make this side look good,” Harris said.
Harris sees violence interrupters as soldiers of sorts. However, instead of weapons they are armed with a message of peace and non-violence.