Cause and solutions to violence: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters

The Interrupters tells the story of people risking their lives to reduce violence in Chicago.

SECOND UPDATE:

Friend, fellow Massachusetts native and another frequent commenter Jack Crane offered this typically articulate and passionate point:

Yo Jeff, I figured you and the Mrs. were drunk on emptynesterhood and hiding out in some Maine cabin for the rest of the summer! :-)

I just got back from a week in the Door County woods with the grandsons and son. Rested, and feeling good about living on a s’more diet and camp songs, why did I read your blog about the Interrupters this morning! :-/ Well, one way of getting right back to the work front!

I was recently at a South Side community activists meeting to discuss ways to attract more retail business in the Bronzeville neighborhood. I stated flat out that we needed to address the yes, epidemic, violence in the neighborhood. Several colleagues countered me by talking about the need to distinguish between “perceived” violence and actual violence. As soon as I heard the word perceived, I loosened my tie and tongue. “Would anybody in this room walk down 47th Street from the Dan Ryan to Lake Park Ave and not fear for their life?,” I asked. There was a long, silent pause in the room. “If there is a murder in Evanston, which certainly has gang issues, the entire community is all over the tragedy. Why do we state ‘perceived” violence, when kids are in fact shooting, robbing and killing each other almost daily on the South Side? Why do we tolerate even one shooting?”

Having spent my career working in Chicago’s South Side, and currently housed in the most violent police beat, I must say I am deeply discouraged by what I perceive as the complete abandonment of low income, minority neighborhoods by the mostly white, affluent power brokers. Sure, there is a steady handful of courageous community activists, including the CeaseFire trio in the documentary, doing amazing work – but most eventually burn out as the chaos breaks down their hearts and souls.

My own hunch is that not a few charismatic nuts will soon organize the growing disenfranchised, and horrific violence will be pitched in the manicured North Shore lawns. The pot is well beyond the boiling point (7 teens arrested last night for mob action, robbery and beating and 18 year old in Chinatown) in my estimation.

To end on a positive note, there are not a few activists, mostly quite young, who recognize that despite President Obama’s good nature and intelligence, he is very much a part of an America which no longer makes any common sense really. So they are turning in new directions, exploring alternative ways to discover and create beauty, justice, compassion. They give me much hope, and I enjoy breathing in their refreshing breeze.

jack


UPDATE: Friend, master teacher and frequent commenter David Russell had this to say:

I want to see if I can find a showing of The Interrupters. It’s questions are my questions also. A few weeks ago a former McKinley student was killed, and this rekindled in me the maddening question of why. It is so wrong, so unnecessary, just shouldn’t happen. But it does and it does. Even though there are so many people working against it. I guess this just shows that numerous powerful forces, listed by you above, are also persistently at work. We will see what we can do. Hopefully by the end of our lifetimes we can get to the point where murder is a much more unheard of thing.

On this much, all but the most hardened or disinterested observer can agree: the levels of violence in many neighborhoods across the country are unacceptably high.

The deaths of hundreds of young people, disproportionately black and Latino, most often at the hands of others from the same backgrounds, is both heartbreaking to the families and an ominous trend for our nation’s current and future health.

But the definition and diagnosis of a problem make all the difference when thinking about it solution.

The consensus breaks apart almost instantly, though, when one starts thinking about the reason why and what, if anything, should be done about it.

There are no end of explanations, from those who are quick to dismiss these young people as not having much value and to chalk up their demises to the deep dysfunction, if not genetic inferiority, of non-white people. I don’t want to spend much space on this other than to say that this perspective exists, and sometimes is couched in terms of personal responsibility and family dysfunction.

Other people talk about the legacy of slavery and internalized violence. Still other discuss the need for fathers to be actively involved in their children’s lives.

Then there are those who cite the all too easy access to handguns-I am thinking here of Geoffrey Canada’s Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, which traces the evolution of resolving conflicts from fighting with one’s hands to shooting people for the same or less objections and Michael Moore’s Columbine.

There are educators who discuss the consequences of so many people in these communities having low levels of formal education. Other people like Earl Shorris describes what he calls “the surround of force” that exists in these violent communities and suggest exposing people there to a rigorous humanities curriculum.  Rather than trying to change the underpinning and dangerous reality to which so many people are exposed, he says, his emphasis is to focus on the possibilities of art and literature in bringing about personal transformation.

Activists and journalists at The Chicago Reporter, where I worked for five years, focused heavily on the allocation of public resources, looking to government and the behavior of institutions like banks as the source of accountability for public welfare.

I would be remiss if I did not mention church folks, who talk about the spiritual crisis in the community and urge residents to get themselves to church, and who endorse a personal relationship with some spiritual belief, often, but not always, Christianity, as a way toward individual salvation and community uplift.

Then there are the activists who talk about jobs and the economic disinvestment in communities like Englewood on the city’s South Side that has seen it go from a stable, middle-class white communities 60 years ago to one of the nation’s roughest communities in which to grow up and live.

Finally, there are the people who talk about food access and meditation as a way to improve the situation.

For his part, Dr. Gary Slutkin defines violence as an epidemic.

Coming after a decade of working in Africa, Slutkin’s decision has had all sorts of consequences, not the least of which is the creation of CeaseFire, a non-profit organization that uses outreach workers and ‘violence interrupters’ to intervene at many different points of conflict to reduce tensions, save lives, and, ultimately, help the community be a safer place.

Ameena Matthews, Ricardo “Cobie” Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are three of these interrupters. They are also the lead characters in The Interrupters, Hoop Dreams director Steve James and my former journalism teacher Alex Kotlowitz’s documentary film that covers a year in the life of these workers, their organization and the troubled city in which they live and work.

Set over the course of four seasons, Interrupters uses the three protagonists to give us an intimate view of the courageous, stressful and often dangerous work they do.

To call it intense would be an understatement.

Time and again, the three interrupters and their colleagues put themselves and their safety on the line in order to forge or increase or defuse volatile situations that can become deadly in an instant.

Slutkin explains what he sees as a two-step process of moving to violence.  The first is having a grievance, while the second is the conviction that violence is a legitimate and justified way to resolve that grievance.

The film has many haunting moments.

One of the most powerful was the wordless pan over the informal memorials that spring up throughout the city in site where young people are killed, sometimes right next to each other.  Seeing the stuffed animals, empty Hennessey bottles and the writings expressing the pain the survivors feels-including one boy who writes to the recently slain victim to tell his mother “high” cannot help but move the viewer, as does the writing on a wall of the young people’s names, on which the camera hones into the words of someone who wrote, “I am next.”

The Interrupters also gives us the backstory on the three protagonists, each of whom had a criminal past.  Matthews is the daughter of legendary gang leader Jeff Fort, and recounts the physical, emotional and sexual abuse she endured for years.  Williams’ father was murdered when he was 11. Despite his resolutions not to get involved in drugs, ended up on the streets doing the same kind of activities in which he had sworn not to participate.

Bocanegra, the third interrupter, is still grappling with the fact that he killed another person at age 17 in a gang-related shooting. At one point in the film he says that everything he does is for his victim.

In an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, James talked about how Matthews and Williams seem to have attained a greater level of peace with their past lives than Bocanegra, who explains that he would like to meet his victim’s family to seek their forgiveness and that he tries to be particularly kind to people on the anniversary of the shooting.

These personal stories are interwoven against the epidemiological approach that Slutkin advocates.  At a screening my brother Jon and I saw last night, he made the point, as did former FDA chief David Kessler at the Hunt Fellowship in Los Angeles when talking about overeating by Americans, that behavioral change has been accomplished among smokers.

This success, the two men suggest, means that a similar approach is possible with violence reduction.

Tio Hardiman, CeaseFire’s director who writes for Huffington Post and has written recently about the London Riots for the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times, and Slutkin both say they have data that demonstrate the interrupters’ effectiveness.

But others are unconvinced, as this recent Sun-Times article notes:

Not everyone believes the computer-crunched data or spoken claims. Though CeaseFire and the interrupters have garnered lots of glowing press coverage over the years, it isn’t hard to find critics. And they don’t pull their punches.

Tracy Siska’s four-part blog series, for the Chicago Justice Project (www.chicagojustice.org), is roundly condemning.

Lance Williams, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University’s Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies and a self-proclaimed “street organization historian,” is similarly censorious. He’s adamant, for instance, that CeaseFire cannot quantify the number of violent instances it prevents because there may well be other contributing factors.

“What you don’t see in ‘the “Interrupters’ piece,” Williams says, “is that sometimes when the violence interrupters go out in the community and they begin to talk to people about these violence cases, there have already been indigenous folks who have attempted to resolve the conflict. And when the interrupters come in, they interrupt that process. And when they interrupt the natural mediation, then they get people riled up again.”

Not only that, Williams notes, the interruption model is highly inefficient. Her obvious passion aside, someone such as Matthews is “just going to run around trying to put out fires for the rest of her life. And then at a certain point she’s going to burn out.”

Matthews strongly disagrees.

†††

In addition to his verbal lambasting of CeaseFire, Williams and a colleague published an in-depth study of the organization in 2007. Underwritten by a grant from the Black United Fund of Illinois, it is rife with damning assessments from the authors, former CeaseFire workers and residents of the neighborhoods where CeaseFire operates.

One blast comes from a Chicago gang intervention director and short-lived CeaseFire employee, who slams the interrupters for their lack of formal training. “It’s really a sham,” he says. “They’re fronting when it comes down to that part of it.” (Hardiman calls the training “rigorous.”)

Four years later, Williams says, his conclusions are relevant “even to a greater degree.”

State Sen. Donne E. Trotter (D-Chicago) is none too impressed, either. On the subject of CeaseFire’s impact via the interrupters and other means, he’s dismissive and intensely skeptical. Just because there’s no gunplay on a particular corner the day after CeaseFire showed up at the site of a shootout means nothing.

“I mean, only a fool is going to go out on the same corner and start shooting again,” Trotter says. “But they use that as a statistic: ‘See how we interrupted crime?’”

“I believe that they serve a function,” Trotter allows. “They’re just not the end-all.”

The discussion about demonstrable impact notwithstanding-I heard many of the same criticisms of Father Boyle’s work with former gang members at Homeboy Industries-Trotter’s comment, of course, raises a profound and important question: what is the end-all?

Again, while there are no shortages of diagnoses, there are painfully few solutions.

I understand the value of Slutkin’s approach and must say that, while understanding violence as a disease has the benefits of removing it from any one individual and of calling forth the same kind of resources that we marshal to fight cancer or heart disease, it also does not get at the underlying reasons for the violence.

Hardiman says as much in the film, explaining the interrupters’ sole goal is to save lives.

It’s a noble and inspiring mission carried out by undeniably courageous people we meet in James and Kotlowitz’s film.   In addition to being the material for a stimulating film, the work honors the men and women who do this work, even as i may not be the ultimate solution to cure the neighborhoods’ deeply entrenched, but, one believes, solvable woes.

4 responses to “Cause and solutions to violence: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters

  1. Jeff, great to see you back on the blog. Sounds like your time away was satisfying, except perhaps the “community service”…If only I could tell the old guys on Thompson Island!

    I want to see if I can find a showing of The Interrupters. It’s questions are my questions also. A few weeks ago a former McKinley student was killed, and this rekindled in me the maddening question of why. It is so wrong, so unnecessary, just shouldn’t happen. But it does and it does. Even though there are so many people working against it. I guess this just shows that numerous powerful forces, listed by you above, are also persistently at work. We will see what we can do. Hopefully by the end of our lifetimes we can get to the point where murder is a much more unheard of thing.

  2. It opens September 16th at the Kendall Square theater in Cambridge. I won’t make it that day–I’ll be on route to New Hampshire for the next day’s 100mile fundraising bike ride for Wediko–but I’ll be there soon afterwards. Thanks for the mention. I hope the movie gets wide viewing.

  3. Yo Jeff, I figured you and the Mrs. were drunk on emptynesterhood and hiding out in some Maine cabin for the rest of the summer! 🙂

    I just got back from a week in the Door County woods with the grandsons and son. Rested, and feeling good about living on a s’more diet and camp songs, why did I read your blog about the Interrupters this morning! :-/ Well, one way of getting right back to the work front!

    I was recently at a South Side community activists meeting to discuss ways to attract more retail business in the Bronzeville neighborhood. I stated flat out that we needed to address the yes, epidemic, violence in the neighborhood. Several colleagues countered me by talking about the need to distinguish between “perceived” violence and actual violence. As soon as I heard the word perceived, I loosened my tie and tongue. “Would anybody in this room walk down 47th Street from the Dan Ryan to Lake Park Ave and not fear for their life?,” I asked. There was a long, silent pause in the room. “If there is a murder in Evanston, which certainly has gang issues, the entire community is all over the tragedy. Why do we state ‘perceived” violence, when kids are in fact shooting, robbing and killing each other almost daily on the South Side? Why do we tolerate even one shooting?”

    Having spent my career working in Chicago’s South Side, and currently housed in the most violent police beat, I must say I am deeply discouraged by what I perceive as the complete abandonment of low income, minority neighborhoods by the mostly white, affluent power brokers. Sure, there is a steady handful of courageous community activists, including the CeaseFire trio in the documentary, doing amazing work – but most eventually burn out as the chaos breaks down their hearts and souls.

    My own hunch is that not a few charismatic nuts will soon organize the growing disenfranchised, and horrific violence will be pitched in the manicured North Shore lawns. The pot is well beyond the boiling point (7 teens arrested last night for mob action, robbery and beating and 18 year old in Chinatown) in my estimation.

    To end on a positive note, there are not a few activists, mostly quite young, who recognize that despite President Obama’s good nature and intelligence, he is very much a part of an America which no longer makes any common sense really. So they are turning in new directions, exploring alternative ways to discover and create beauty, justice, compassion. They give me much hope, and I enjoy breathing in their refreshing breeze.

    jack

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