interrupting the violence

there’s a brief scene about halfway through the film the interrupters: a brick wall, painted primary yellow, is covered in dozens of names. as the camera pans over the wall, it eventually focuses in on a single brick, where someone has written the question am i next?

i dislike the word “compelling”. it feels overused and occasionally inappropriate. so when it was the first word that came to mind to describe the interrupters, i searched my vocabulary for an alternative and came up with the word “necessary”. because this film was necessary to tell a story that cities and towns in this country need to hear.

the center of the film is an organization in chicago called ceasefire. created by a former street hustler and founded by an epidemiologist, ceasefire’s purpose isn’t to break up gangs. it’s to stop murders from happening, one killing at a time. it aims to get people to talk to one another rather than immediately leap to retaliate. the mediators are called violence interrupters, and these aren’t over-educated, well meaning white people. these are people who know the streets. they’ve done violence and had violence done to them. the three interrupters the film chose to follow were a man who spent 14 years in prison for murder, a man with prior attempted murder and drug convictions, and the daughter of a gang leader whose name is still recognized and holds sway amongst the gangs of chicago: when she speaks, people listen.

the approach isn’t a new one: treat violence as a disease. most of the mediators on staff are former gang members. in the film, one actually remarks he’s not used to being in the same room with so many vice lords. directed by steve james (hoop dreams) and co-produced by alex kotlowitz (author of the incredible book there are no children here), the interrupters is not a feel good story. they have set backs, often major ones. the interrupters get shot at, shut down, walked away from. people sometimes are just not interested in listening, in finding another solution.

but there are small victories, stories that make you believe that it might be possible to stop this disease from spreading through a new generation. ameena, daughter of the gang leader jeff fort, tries over and over again to get through to caprysha. caprysha, it seems, is used to having people give up on her, so it’s a new thing when ameena won’t. cobe manages to not only get two brothers who’ve joined rival cliques in the same room to talk to each other, he gets one of them to sit down and have a meal with his mother, something that hasn’t happened in quite some time. then cobe gets a call from an acquaintence in jail: go talk to his brother, flamo. flamo’s pissed that the police busted into his house and hauled his mother off in handcuffs. he knows who ratted out his brother, and he wants to go after him. it takes some doing, but cobe and hot rod, another interrupter, talk him down. a few weeks or months later, flamo surprises them by saying he actually de-escalated a situation on the street himself, telling the two arguing parties not to do it in front of his house, to bring that violence.

my favorite story was lil mikey. after serving a few years for a robbery he committed at 15, he realized, quickly, that he didn’t want to end up in prison again. he wanted to be someone his little brother could look up to. he went, of his own volition, to the barber shop he held up and apologized. then he got a job, and as the movie ended, he was talking to tio hardiman, creator of ceasefire, about becoming an interrupter himself-one of the youngest on the payroll.

the studies have shown that ceasefire’s approach has worked. founded in the year 2000, the murder rate for chicago was 628. by 2010, it had dropped to 435. in areas where the program has outreach workers, shootings have dropped by anywhere between 41% to 73%. in 5 of the 7 communities studied, retaliatory shootings had been reduced by 100%. yes, really. 100%.

so much of violence prevention fails to actually take on a preventative approach. it’s a war the government has declared on them, and they’ll solve the problem by punishing them. the violence interrupters of ceasefire say no, we’re not here to punish you. if you’re willing to listen, we’ll show you there’s another way, that you really can break this never-ending cycle.

i thought the interrupters would be a horribly depressing film (hey, i LIKE horribly depressing films!) and while it had its moments, it was strangely uplifting. it made me think that if people could just be a little more open minded, maybe we can find better solutions to other social problems. because the status quo sure ain’t working.

the interrupters is showing at seattle’s varsity theatre until thursday, and in other cities for limited engagements nationwide. to learn more about ceasefire, click here.

*image via kartemquin films

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