"You twist it. You say, 'You going to shoot that guy because he stole $130 of drugs? Christmas is around the corner. Who's going to be Santa?' " says Dante Barksdale, the outreach coordinator for Safe Streets.
(Barksdale, by the way, is the other former convict present at my interview. He spent eight years in prison for dealing bad heroin. And if his name sounds familiar, yes, he is the nephew of former drug kingpin Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale, an inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a character in the HBO series The Wire.)
"I go as far as saying, 'Who's going to raise your kids?' " Marshburn adds.
Site director James Timpson offers up another motivation directed specifically at the dealers. "If you want to make the block too hot, ain't nobody can make any money." (Timpson grew up in the neighborhood, but he credits his unusual jail-less past to his parents, who sent him to boarding school when he was a teenager.)
It's now clear why these guys aren't cops. They are willing to look the other way on drug dealing and other petty crime as long the violence stays at bay. Trust in the neighborhood is the most important job qualification for these "violence interrupters." The number 1 rule on the street is, "Don't be a rat," Marshburn says. Guys who have been seen talking to the police, even if the context is unknown, are already viewed suspiciously and are not capable of forming the relationships necessary to persuade potentially violent people to hold off. If they were ever a witness in a prosecution, forget it.
Marshburn got his referral to Safe Streets about a year ago from another site director whom he met in jail. He had just finished his most recent trip to rehab for a heroin addiction and called up his buddy. "He said, 'Man, I been looking for you,' " Marshburn says. " 'I got an opportunity.' "
Marshburn wasn't going to say no to anything that meant clean money, no matter how crazy it sounded. He started at Safe Streets as a volunteer, walking his assigned blocks and making connections. He was carefully vetted by a team of health professionals and neighborhood leaders to see if he had a good reputation and was able to handle conflict resolution. Could he talk an angry person bent on retaliation down? Could he persuade high-risk individuals to let Safe Streets staffers keep in regular contact? Could he stay clean?
His jail buddy encouraged him. Marshburn says, "I never had a job before. I don't have a résumé. He said, 'You are your résumé. … You mediated a situation for me in prison.' "
Marshburn knows the exact date he started getting paid for his work: Nov. 26, 2013. It's been a big year for him. He was promoted to supervisor. He mentors younger people in his neighborhood and is studying to be an addiction counselor. At one time, parents kept their kids away from him. Now they want him to hang out with their children. He is 45, with three grown children of his own and four grandchildren, ages 2 to 5. And yet this is the first year he has had his own place to live. "I don't even want nobody to come over to my house," he admits with a sheepish grin.