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Police Face Backlash Over Virus Rules. Enter ‘Violence Interrupters.’

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Police Face Backlash Over Virus Rules. Enter ‘Violence Interrupters.’

Desiree Rios for The New York Times

When Iesha Sekou began passing out surgical masks and disposable gloves in Harlem early in the pandemic, some people laughed and said she was taking things too far. It was an unfamiliar role for Ms. Sekou, the founder of a nonprofit that usually works to prevent gang violence.

But as deaths from the virus mounted in predominantly black neighborhoods like the one where Ms. Sekou’s group operates, people started chasing her and her workers down the street to get supplies, she said.

Even young skeptics who “had their little theories” about the virus dropped their resistance after Ms. Sekou and her volunteers warned them that the police could stop them for not having a mask, or worse, they might get infected and unwittingly pass the disease along to their grandmothers.

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“That’s a soft spot that we were able to hit and get them to know that if you don’t want to do this for you, you don’t like the way it looks, do it for who you live with, whose couch you sleep on,” Ms. Sekou said.

People like Ms. Sekou are known as “credible messengers” or “violence interrupters” in their line of work, and city officials say they may be critical to overcoming resistance to social distancing rules in some black and Hispanic neighborhoods where there is distrust of the authorities.

Violence prevention groups, like Ms. Sekou’s Street Corner Resources, are part of a broader effort by City Hall to use civilians to encourage people to follow social-distancing rules rather than relying solely on police officers.Mayor Bill de Blasio made that effort a priority after viral videos […]

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