Members of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change guard a Red Line train station. Credit: Provided/Tyrone Muhammad

CHATHAM — Neighbors had been calling Tyrone Muhammad for weeks, asking him to mobilize his violence prevention group to help guard CTA trains amid violence and unruly behavior, he said.

Outfitted with red-and-black bomber jackets, dozens of members of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change patrolled Red Line stations and trains for a week in October to reassure riders, deter trouble and intervene to mitigate conflict.

Videos of dozens of men from Muhammad’s CTA Community Support team posted up at the 87th Street Red Line station went viral on social media, garnering appreciative comments from riders increasingly wary of riding the trains and buses, he said.

“When I reached out to a few people to talk about what was going on with the CTA and figuring out how we get back public safety on the trains, I said, ‘You know what, we’re going to do it ourselves,’” Muhammad said. “It became like, ‘OK, I’m going to show the city how this is supposed to look.’”

The patrols were temporary; Muhammad used donations to pay for them. They were created on the fly to support neighbors who wanted active change, and the group made it happen, Muhammad said. 

The organizer is willing to continue that work long-term, but he’d need city or state funding to help, he said. More broadly, local leaders need to think of groups like his as more effective approaches to violence prevention, Muhammad said.

Responding to a similar demand to improve public safety, Muhammad’s group was recently selected as part of a pilot program in Bronzeville to add private security to busy streets and residential areas. 

“We’re never given the proper respect as subject matter experts,” Muhammad said. “They hire us to do violence prevention, but they don’t give us the resources to be the leaders. We’re good enough to work the streets, but we can’t be leaders of the very thing they want to reduce.”

CTA officials did not respond to Block Club’s questions about violence prevention programs on public transit.

Members of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change guard a Roosevelt train station. Credit: Provided/Tyrone Muhammad

As CTA leaders contend with crime and disarray on their trains and buses, fed-up commuters have demanded safer, cleaner and more reliable conditions.  

CTA employees are also frustrated and frightened. Attacks on CTA operators are on the rise, and crime on trains more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the Tribune

In response, the CTA has boosted the number of unarmed security guards at its stations, inking deals with four private security firms. In August, CTA President Dorval Carter announced the agency would bring back its K-9 security teams in a $30.9 million contract to monitor trains and platforms. 

But riders, and even security guards, have questioned if the agency’s strategy is making public transportation safer

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But dogs and hired security guards “don’t have a cultural affinity or connection to our community,” Muhammad said. 

Instead of reverting to “anti-Black solutions and paying millions for it,” the CTA, city and state officials should give groups such as Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change the authority to lead conversations about public safety, Muhammad said. With more funding, his group could hire men to guard the stations, buy cameras and own cars dedicated to the cause, Muhammad said. 

“Why not try to do something as simple and affordable as using us?” Muhammad said. “You’ll spend $30 million on the dogs when you can spend $5 million a year and we can create a CTA Community Support team.”

In recent weeks, commuters have called for Carter’s resignation. After skipping a council hearing in September and a CTA budget meeting in January, Carter is scheduled to appear at a council hearing Thursday.

The agency has run out of solutions, and it’s time for a new plan, Muhammad said.

“You know the government is running out of ideas when they go back to what has already happened and cost taxpayers money,” Muhammad said. “They should see us as a logical next step to fix the problem that is the violence on our public transportation.” 

Members of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change ride a train during a patrol session. Credit: Provided/Tyrone Muhammad

The Community Safety Team’s red-and-black look was no accident. Muhammad chose the colors to look unified, stylish and vibrant, enough to attract the attention of commuters but not so much to stand out, he said.

The jackets are similar to what the New York Guardian Angels wear when they patrol the trains, but they’re less “corny,” Muhammad said. 

“I think public safety should have a style to it as well,” Muhammad said. “We are organized and serious about public safety and visibility, but we do it with a little character and style that separates us from everybody else.” 

Muhammad used his organization’s money to buy the jackets and fare cards for the dozens of men who stood guard. The costs and time quickly mounted, limiting the initiative to one week, Muhammad said. 

With the proper support, Muhammad could bring the support teams back, he said. 

“We live for this type of stuff,” Muhammad said. “We are an organization that lives to confront violence and change the behavior of our youth. Other people might see it as a job. We see it as a lifestyle.”

Muhammad has been criticized recently for his political views and engagement.

Photos of Muhammad with Republican gubernatorial Darren Bailey have circulated in social channels, including one that posted on Bailey’s page last week.

Muhammad said his organization “tries to be at every political rally” for both parties and acknowledged being at events where politicians and other organizers have criticized the SAFE-T Act.

Viral posts about the SAFE-T promoted by candidates such as Bailey inaccurately claimed the law would create non-detainable offenses. Among other criminal justice reforms, the law eliminates cash bail as a standard for Illinois’ judicial system.

Muhammad said his views represent those of his organization, and he isn’t concerned about how his political actions may impact whether his group gets city or state funding to expand their violence prevention work, he said.

Officials are “withholding funds” from violence prevention groups already, he said.

“I’m not caught up about what anybody thinks about me,” Muhammad said. “They weren’t thinking about me when I was doing 21 years in prison. Why should I care now?”

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis