Chicago’s ‘Mr. Ceasefire’ came by his nickname the hard way
In 2003, Tio Hardiman talked his way out of a potentially deadly conflict when five gang members confronted him at 47th and Cottage Grove Avenue on the Southside, and brandishing a gun, demanded that he cover a $5,000 debt owed by his imprisoned brother.
That same day, (Hardiman said he realized upon reflection) he had talked his way into founding Violence Interrupters, an anti-violence gang intervention nonprofit for which he is executive director. Hardiman joined the public health initiative Ceasefire in 1999, which has proven to reduce shootings and killings, according to the Violence Interrupters website. The group, established in 2004, has since expanded its mission to reduce crime beyond Chicago to other cites in the U.S. and overseas. They have also received funding from Illinois to continue promoting peace in that state.
“I could have run but they would have eventually caught up with me,” Hardiman told the Southland Marquee about the encounter on the day that started it all. “But I wasn’t about to back down either. So I explained to them that I didn’t owe the money that my brother did, so it wasn’t my responsibility to pay it back. They gave me a few days, so I got some friends and we had a meeting with them, and they agreed that when my brother got out he would pay them back, and he did.”
It wasn’t the first time that Hardiman, who was raised in a “dysfunctional, violent environment” in the notorious Henry Horner Homes on the Near West Side, faced off against gang members. But it was that confrontation, and another where he stood between gang members and their intended victim (earning him the “Mr. Ceasefire” moniker) that convinced him he had all the right stuff to play a role in stemming gang violence.
How the Violence Interrupters’ Model Works
“Training is one thing in intervention and very important” he said, and that does play a key role in the nonprofit, which also holds annual peace summits. “But it’s more important for the person to know the community, to come from a history of violence and understand where that violence comes from.”
The training of his staff, many of them former gang members who use their influence for peace, consists of learning what Hardiman says is how “to apply a public health model and change someone’s mindset to a higher mindset before the violence occurs.”
But “what makes them truly valuable are their street ties,” he said.
Violence Interrupters’ most recent activity report covering January to June 2022 said the group mediated 32 gang conflicts, with much of its efforts in the Austin, Englewood, Chatham, Roseland, West Humboldt Park and East and West Garfield neighborhoods.
The activity report also said that staff spent 800 hours working with more than 80 at-risk youth — an effort that discourages young men from joining gangs. They intervened and prevented numerous fights on the Southside as well.
In one example, Hardiman said that he recently intervened when a former drug dealer was released after a year in prison and was determined to take his block in South Austin back, by force if necessary.
“I got some OGs (old school gangsters) on this, and we had a sitdown,” he said. “We didn’t get into the drug side of it, but we worked it out to prevent the violence side of it,” he said.
“In these situations, there are three different versions of what’s going on,” he said, “lies, misunderstandings and the truth. We always try to get to the truth.”
Turns out the former dealer had no knowledge that his girlfriend and brother were collecting money from the new dealers, as per an arrangement before he entered prison.
Hardiman notes, with a proviso that his group alone can’t take credit, that in the past year homicides declined 60% in Austin. In addition, the homicide rate in Chicago dropped by 25% in 2013, which Violence Interrupters says may be a testament to their operation as well.
Never a gang member himself, Hardiman did “run the streets” for a time, becoming a drug user. He cleaned up, earned his high school GED and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in inner city studies from Northeastern University. Hardiman is working at North Park University as a professor of criminal justice and restorative justice.
In recent years, the gang structure, he said, has become more hybrid, with more “mercenaries and free wheelers,” gunmen who will work for anyone for a price. But the underlying reason for the gangs remains the same: distressed communities giving rise to a street culture where the leaders establish their own tiny nations and own codes of conduct. Those unafraid to use a gun “get the props in the concrete jungle.”
“You kill someone, and you’re playing God,” he said. “You’re now a made man. You feel like you’re untouchable.”
How City Policies Impact Street Violence
City policies help to stem the violence in some cases; in others they get in the way.
Violence Interrupters works with the police, he said, but “they stay in separate lanes.”
He backs restorative justice initiatives but wants consideration for crime victims especially when certain laws are enacted; he referenced the new SAFE-T Act, which institutes a no cash bail system beginning Jan. 1.
“A lot of liberals don’t think abut the victims when they pass these laws,” he said. “They don’t understand what happens in the concrete jungle.”
He’s no fan of the winter towing policy, which began Dec. 1, and can cost inner city car owners a $150 minimum towing fee in addition to a $60 ticket and $25 per day storage charge.
“I understand when we expect a blizzard, but it’s crazy to have this in place all the time and penalizing working class people,” Hardiman said.
And he opposes a city code that suspends driving privileges of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing drivers for unpaid parking or traffic tickets. Chicago is the only major city with such a policy.
“It’s a bad decision,” he said. “Has to be a way to work something it out. If they can’t work, how can they make money to pay the tickets off?”
Since 2015 Violence Interrupters has spread to Freeport, Illinois, and Springfield, Ohio. The Violence Interrupters model is now being used in 15 different Chicago communities, seven Illinois towns, 15 cities across the country and internationally in England, Iraq and South Africa.