I had seen clips of the documentary the Interrupters on PBS a few times, but never got a chance to watch the full length of the movie. When I finally wanted to watch it, they weren’t airing it on T.V anymore. Luckily the PBS website had the full documentary online and for this blog I will give a summary of the movie and what I thought about it.
The documentary “The Interrupters” looks at the life of three Violence Interrupters and their work within a span of one year. These Violence Interrupters work with an organization called Ceasefire in the most conflict-reddened areas of Chicago, who try to protect these communities from violence that they were once a part of. The film was directed by Steve James, an acclaimed director known for his powerful portrayal and insight of communities and cultures in his movies and documentaries. Interrupters was filmed during a period of constant youth violence in parts of Chicago, in African American and Latino neighborhoods, and during a time when the United States had its eye on Chicago as a national symbol for the violence in our communities.
Founder of Ceasefire, Gary Slutkin, believes that the spread of violence in communities is similar to the spread of diseases and epidemics, “violence is like the great diseases of history…. violence as behavior, not as bad people.” For the young people in these neighborhoods, they see violence as their disease and they expect that they are going to die from this. Tio Hardiman, who created Ceasefires main program, “Violence Interrupters” explains that violence is a two-step process. The first thought is grievances; people come up with reasons to start a conflict for example, “He looked at my girl…he owes me money…he’s a Sunni…he’s a Palestinian, and so forth. The second thought is that these grievances justify the violence.” Tio, just like members of the Violence Interrupters has street credibility (because of his own personal history), which gives him full insight into the violence and minds of Chicago’s youth.
The three Violence Interrupters that are followed throughout this documentary are Amina Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra. Amina was the daughter of Jeff Ford, one of the biggest gang leaders in the history of Chicago. In the documentary Amina is what Tio calls the “golden girl,” she knows how to get them (the community youth) to open up. Being an ex-gang enforcer and one that has lived a life in shoot outs, she knows what its like to be a youth in these communities that are plagued by violence. Cobe Williams, scarred by his father’s murder, began a downwind spiral at the age of twelve. After being in and out of jail numerous times, Cobe decided to turn his life around with the help of his family. In the documentary we see that Cobe, with his humor and general good nature, “knows how to get in, he knows the language – what to say, when to say it.” Cobe too has big time credibility with the gang members because of his past, which allows him to easily insert himself within the conflict in order to resolve it. Last, but not least is Eddie Bocanegra, who is still daunted by the murder he committed at the age of seventeen. For him, his work with Ceasefire as a Violence Interrupter is a repentance for his past actions. Playing on his strength in art, Eddie is able to and concerned with spending majority of his time with young children affected by the aftermaths of violence. He teaches the children art, warns them of the trauma experienced by those who have come face to face with violence, and makes an effort to keep children off the streets and get them the support they need.
Throughout the documentary, the viewer is able to look into Ceasefire meetings and the conflicts that take place within the communities. Each Violence Interrupter has a past of their own, and each uses their history and knowledge of the streets to get closer to their goal, which is to “ stop the killing, and save a life.”
One of the first scenes we see is of a conflict-taking place right in front of the Ceasefire building. Amina Matthew quickly interrupts the conflict and has both groups separate. What is profound is that even a five-year-old girl was shouting profanities and getting involved in a conflict that had nothing to do with her. Later, Amina talks to some of the youth and is able to get them to open up through different forms of communication, one form being laughter. Amina explains, “If you get them to laugh at themselves- find that soft side, not their weak side, then you ride on that.”
In these streets the youth have been brought up with the notion that “you have to stand up no matter what happens… death before dishonor.” They have been taught violence, as violence is a learned behavior. One youth justifies, “If you don’t do it, they’re going to do it to you, you go hard or it’s your life.” They say all odds are against them, they have been brought up this way, they want to fight, and that history is up against them.
One scene in the documentary that was very overwhelming for me was a still shot of a wall of names, names of all who had been killed, murdered, and shot, and in one spot someone had written, “ I am next…” This shows how deep the youths mentality about violence is, and that they think they are stuck in it, when in reality in order to break out of it they have to find change within themselves and their peers. However, in a sense they find an honor in getting killed. They want to be known that they didn’t step down, that they fought and died, and that they know that when they die, they’ll get all the hype, both from the community and the media, that they have made normal around such drastic deaths.
Tio explains in the documentary that “Once media goes back to wherever they came from, we have to step up to the plate and make something happen up over there.” He is aware that a lot of the violence isn’t gang violence, its interpersonal conflict that deals with respect and disrespect, not being accepted in an overall society where a lot of people are ostracized, and so they try to dominate their societies. Their actions go from “zero to rage in thirty seconds” and they act out because of something that upset them earlier in their day. With this kind of anger and violence, Tio explains that they cannot mediate the conflict without full confrontation. As the documentary comes to a close, Tio explains that African American and Latino communities have been beaten for so long with poor schools, lack of jobs, hopelessness, and despair that it is “hard for people to stick with peace if they don’t have a stick that they can hold on to.”
Although this documentary looked at the violence in Chicago communities as a whole, it also focused on specific youth whom Aminah, Cobe, and Eddie personally intervened with; Capyrsha Anderson, Lil Mikey, Flamo, Vanessa Villalba, and Kenneth. Along with these young adults, Ceasefire was able to prevent numerous outburst of violence to occur in their communities. Its impact was beyond substantial. These Violence Interrupters were right there with each act of violence from the beginning to the end, and used their knowledge and insightfulness to the best of their ability to reduce the tension of the conflicts. Each young adult the Violence Interrupters assisted have taken a full 360 in changing their lives, sometimes all one angry person needs is someone right there beside them to show them the right path.
Watching this documentary made me realize that these communities have been “brain –washed” into believing that violence is the only way to solve a conflict. However, when they have member of Violence Interrupters come in and show them alternative options, it opens up a number of other possibilities for them, with a less drastic cost that wont end up affecting them for the rest of their lives.
I could definitely see myself incorporating this type of intervention and peace education into my practice. It is always useful to have those who are knowledgeable of a conflict come in and help resolve a conflict. What I liked the most was that each Violence Interrupter had a violent past of their own which they rid themselves of, and they knew exactly what was going on in the minds of the youth. Because of their insightfulness, they were able to assist the community and individual youths to a level of nonviolence.
Stakeholders that I believe will be able to benefit from my post are anyone who lives in a community that violence plays a big role in. For older community members, this type of intervention and peace education would assist their communities to a level of nonviolence for the youth.