Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are the patron saints of pop culture about Boston. With their new show City on a Hill, premiering on Showtime on June 16, they’re revisiting a charged moment in Boston’s history.
They called it the Boston Miracle. For 18 months in the ‘90s in Boston, no one under the age of 17 was murdered. Homicide rates fell 63%. This drop in gang-related violence was no accident. It was the result of Operation Ceasefire, an enormous initiative developed through a collaboration between criminology professor David Kennedy and Boston’s police department, community-based programs, street workers, juvenile corrections officers, churches, and neighborhood programs between 1994 and 1996.
City on a Hill takes a dramatized approach to telling the Boston Miracle's origin story. The show opens when the city's homicide rate was at its highest. In 1990, for example, Boston had a record-breaking 152 homicides. In an interview with Commonwealth Magazine, Kennedy describes the atmosphere in Boston before his plan was implemented.
"What was going on in Boston was the same basic thing that was going on everywhere. The crack epidemic had unleashed a wave of violence that really was unprecedented in kind, in scope, in intensity. The homicide rate for young Black men went up 400% in just a couple of years. On the ground in these places it just felt like Armageddon had been unleashed," Kennedy said.
City on a Hill starts in a fractured Boston. The show's two main characters, veteran F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) and newcomer district attorney Decourcey Ward (Aldis Hodge), have nothing in common on paper. Jackie is described as being “a classic Boston asshole — from a time in this city when things were so fucked up that if you went to church on Sunday you were considered legitimate.” Decourcey is an ambitious and morally upright lawyer trying to break into Boston's overwhelmingly white power structure.
From the get-go, Decourcey and Jackie clash. But their underlying motives are the same. They both want to take radical approaches to the way "things" are done in law enforcement.
It's important to note that Jackie and Decourcey are fictional characters. The city-wide cleanup that led up to the Boston Miracle was actual spearheaded by over 400 people. City on a Hill is a sprawling show with many characters — but it's not that sprawling.
“The Boston Miracle was a very real thing,” producer Tom Fontana told IndieWire. “Lives were saved as a result. That being said, getting there was not a yellow brick road.”
So, how did the Boston Miracle actually happen? It began with a forum in March 1996 between the Vamp Hill Kings and law enforcement, as well as other people involved in Operation Ceasefire (like Kennedy). Not long before, fighting between the Vamp Hill Kings led to the deaths of three boys in a month. Under the stricter tenets of Operation Ceasefire, gang members were immediately arrested. If one person is caught with a gun, the whole group would be punished.
"The thing that nobody had thought of was raise the cost of the gunplay to the group to a level that’s so high they don’t want to pay it. It turned out that without any new law, any new resources, or anything fancy except a new idea about how to operate, street officers and their partners could actually do this and did it," Kennedy told Commonwealth Magazine.
From that first meeting, the message spread. There would be severe penalties for crimes — but it wasn't a war on gangs. Rather, it was a war on gang violence.
"The way we came to characterize the message was really simple: We know who you are, we know what you’re doing, we would like to help you. We will help you if you let us, and we will stop you if you make us.That one meeting started a big change on the streets," Kennedy told Commonwealth Magazine.
After that meeting, Boston saw its youth homicide rate drop 63%, as did assaults. In addition to interrupting violence, community workers offered exit paths from a life of crime to kids — the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a group of Christian clergy, played a major role in this aspect.
“In the past, law enforcement had an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Oakland Police Captain Ersie Joyner told Oakland North of Ceasefire. “We were an occupying army in the community. That is no longer the case. Now our philosophy is we want to be a part of the community, not apart from it.” The city has attributed its 30% drop in gun-related homicides to Ceasefire.
But the Boston Miracle fizzled out in the 2000s, and the homicide rate went back up. Operation Ceasefire relies on the cooperation of law enforcement and community leaders for an extended period of time. Kennedy says that Operation Ceasefire as it had existed no longer exists in Boston.
Operation Ceasefire has had many applications in many places. City on a Hill goes back to how it started.