“It’s a warzone here,” is a phrase you keep hearing again and again in The Interrupters, a powerful and somewhat distressing documentary about the senseless violence in America’s inner cities and about CeaseFire, an organisation attempting to cure this sickness, one individual at a time.
The film was produced by Steve James, director of 1994 college basketball video-diary Hoop Dreams, in collaboration with author Alex Kotlowitz, whose New York Times article put James on the scent of CeaseFire and its brave ‘violence interrupters’ operating on the front lines.
There were 453 murders in the city of Chicago in 2009. The city is drawn along imaginary colour lines, and on the South Side, where The Interrupters was filmed, it’s not uncommon for 12 and 13 year olds to walk around with bullet-proof vests under their clothes. Many students here are afraid to go to school where playground confrontations often threaten to degenerate into deadly battles.
It was in one such after-school fight that Derrion Albert, a student at Fenger Academy High School, lost his life. Clumped around the head with a piece of railroad track when he was caught in the middle of a fight between rival gangs, the honours student died on the spot.
The incident was caught on a mobile phone, and the video of Derrion’s death spread like wildfire across the national TV networks in 2009, prompting a bout of national soul searching. President Barack Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago to attempt to formulate some response.
But on the ground in Chicago, it’s CeaseFire that mobilises its troops and dispatches Ameena Matthews to console Derrion Albert’s mother. Over the course of a year, The Interrupters follows Ameena and two other interrupters, Eddie Bocanegra and Cobe Williams, as they operate in the trenches of Englewood, Chicago.
When situations in the community threaten to blow over into violence, for instance immediately after a murder when there is a high risk of retaliation, the violence interrupters will step in and defuse the situation, encouraging the aggrieved parties to resolve the issue through dialogue, not violence. The philosophy behind CeaseFire is that patterns of violence can be disrupted by approaching them as you would an epidemic – going after the most infected, and stopping the infection at its source.
So you find the violence interrupters, often with little regard for their own safety, intervening in gang disagreements, hectoring the teenage mourners at the funeral of another dead friend, helping offenders reintegrate once they’re released from jail or just performing acts of kindness for the most fragile teens, like Caprysha Anderson who is in and out of Juvenile Detention.
The success of the CeaseFire programme, which registers a 50% drop in murders in some areas, can be attributed to the fact that its violence interrupters all come from the community, and often have first-hand experience of the activities they’re trying to put a halt to. Ameena, who breezes through tight situations like some Mother Theresa of the South Side, is in fact the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most infamous gang leaders and was once herself caught up in the same tricking she now helps to put a stop to.
Critics of the CeaseFire organisation argue that it’s just a Band Aid, treating the symptom without treating with the cause – those intractable problems like unemployment, poor education, and drug trafficking – but its defendants argue that by stopping the violence you open the pathway for a neighbourhood to heal, for the schools to get better, for the kids to improve their outlooks and for businesses to want to open in the community.
In his book Dreams for My Father, Obama remembered his own time as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago, in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project where he helped provide summer jobs, instigated building repairs and removed asbestos from apartments. “Change won’t come from the top,” he notes. “Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”
The Interrupters shows that change is taking effect unquestionably in small but steady steps.
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We spoke to Ameena Matthews, one of the stars of the film, over the phone from Chicago.
Watching you in action, the way you intervene in situations, the way you provide support to really fragile subjects, is awe-inspiring.
I’m very honoured to have that gift. Some people wish they could sing, some people wish they could dance, I just want to be able to be effective and help people change their lives. That’s my goal, that’s my purpose.
Can you tell us the latest on Caprysha who is going through a very difficult time in the film?
Caprysha is a hot mess still. She’s locked up still and she’s in the process of waiting to get paroled and look for housing, because she’ll be 21 soon and it’s no more Juvenile Detention Center for her – she’ll go into Illinois Department of Corrections women facility. But she’s doing good. I spoke to her last week and before the weather gets bad I’ll ride up there to where she is.
How do know where to draw the line with how far you get involved with these young people’s lives?
In dealing with people’s lives, and being responsible for their lives, it’s not like the shut-off 9-5 type of thing. So really they allow me to know what my boundaries are. Like with Caprysha, she wasn’t ready to make a decision to change her life. She had another run in her. She wanted to do it her way and see if it would work. So she let me know that. There’s no handbook on how to be a productive member of society. It’s just doing the right things for the right reasons, and if you’re still not doing that after our engagement, that’s cut off for me. I’m not going to harbour a fugitive. I’m not going to aid and abet illegal behaviour. So they let me know what they need – whether it’s just a kind word, or to get something to eat. Just taking baby steps. And then they might go ‘Now I’m ready to get my GED,’ or ‘Now I’m ready to visit my mom’ or ‘I’m ready to go make amends to people that I harmed in the midst of the drama that I caused’.
How do you deal with all the pain?
It’s hard to deal with all the pain, but I come from that background so I can i.d. with it. We, as a people, can write our own ending to the book. It’s going to take a miracle and blessings upon our people to get them to understand to change their mindset that violence is not a good thing. So you take it one day at a time, one youth at a time, or sometimes in my case I have five or six I’m juggling at one time. If I can get somebody to put their guns down, and don’t shoot anybody, we can deal with the underlying issues, we really can. But if you shoot somebody and catch a murder, I can’t really help you.
Is the government doing enough?
I’m not a political person. I’ve just got to do my part and hopefully the government will do the right thing to get people education, food, housing. I don’t like to do the political type conversation about what the government is and is not doing. As a whole country, we can always do more. But people know from their hearts what the right thing is. To have kids not able to go to school, and not have proper health care, guns being dropped in our communities… people know the difference between right and wrong, whether that’s the government, the school board, or my neighbour.
With CeaseFire, is it the case that it’s the community that’s best equipped to solve its own problems?
We as a black people have been so abused all the way back from slavery and there are issues we haven’t dealt with, unresolved emotions, and it’s always a consistent burden put on our community. And yes, we do have to fix our own problems, however some of our problems are not problems that we created.
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