Violence, interrupted

At the heart of Gandhi’s revolution was a new kind of hero: brave, but also compassionate; bold, but also empathetic; powerful, but also unarmed. For millennia, traditional heroism had been fueled by the implacable absolutism of the Us vs. Them script (“we are good, they are evil”) enforced by justified violence. Gandhi’s new heroism-subverting hero—whom he called a satyagrahi, a practitioner of Soulforce—bet her life on challenging and dissolving this ceaselessly reinvented and endlessly lethal dividing line.

“The Interrupters,” a new documentary from director Steve James and producer Alex Kotlowitz, vividly dramatizes this gamble in the midst of a culture of extreme youth violence on Chicago’s South and West Sides. The film is an up-to-the-minute account of the haunting terror of seemingly inescapable gang conflict that is continually threatening to spin out of control—and that often does.

What sets this sobering account apart, however, is that it settles neither for ineffectual hand wringing nor a more traditional criminal justice perspective, including prosecution and incarceration as the solution to gang violence. Instead, it tracks over the course of a year a trio of “violence interrupters” – Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra –who, like Gandhi’s satyagrahis, are nonviolent first responders intervening in numerous disputes on the streets that threaten immediate carnage but also could touch off a larger war.

These and other interrupters are part of CeaseFire, an innovative nonprofit organization that “intervenes in crises, mediates disputes between individuals, and intercedes on group disputes to prevent violent events.” The interrupters “know who to talk to, who has influence, and how to de-escalate a situation before it results in bloodshed.”

CeaseFire touts what it calls a public health approach that seeks to prevent violence “on the front end” through interruption, intervention, risk reduction, and changing norms and behaviors. On the front lines are the interrupters, who have street credibility, rooted in years on the street and often long prison sentences for gang-related activity. Here are what Ceasefire reports are the results of its model:

 CeaseFire launched in West Garfield Park, one of the most violent communities in Chicago in 2000 and was quick to produce results reducing shootings by 67% in its first year. CeaseFire’s results have since been replicated more than 18 times in Chicago and throughout Illinois and has now been statistically proven by an extensive, U.S. Department of Justice funded, independent three-year evaluation. This evaluation scientifically-validated CeaseFire’s success in reducing shootings and killings by 41% to 73% and demonstrated a 100% success rate in reducing retaliatory killings in five of the eight communities examined. The Model has been replicated more than a dozen times nationally and has two international sites in Iraq.

In June 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., head of the Department of Justice referenced CeaseFire as an example of “a rational, data-driven, evidence-based, smart approach to crime – the kind of approach that this Administration is dedicated to pursuing and supporting.” The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a subsequent evaluation of the Baltimore-based CeaseFire replication with initial results consistent with earlier Department of Justice evaluation findings and the University of Kansas demonstrated a 38% reduction in homicides for the first CeaseFire zone in Kansas City.

The film, however, does not dwell on these lofty results or analyses. Instead, it relentlessly takes us into the up-close immediacy of street-level battles and the ways CeaseFire’s Interrupters engage these volatile and unpredictable situations, often with a combination of deep listening; confrontation; improvisation (including the offer to take an angry gang-banger to lunch, which he unexpectedly accepts); a worn wisdom that shows in their faces as they listen to the parties and weigh their next move; and a gritty, down-to-earth suasion rooted in their street cred. They’ve been there, and they know the outcome is often lockup or the cemetery.

The narrative effectively interweaves riveting real-time incidents or vignettes—a peace summit after the savage killing of a high school student; a tense funeral; a trip to the hospital where a CeaseFire supervisor visits with the first Interrupter to be shot in the line of duty—with the moving biographies of Ameena, Cobe and Eddie and their own difficult journeys of transformation and the day-to-day choice, against all odds and sometimes even their better judgment, to keep at it.

There are numerous cases in the film where they stay the course, even when the results seem miniscule or uncertain—as in the example of the mother and two sons who are in different gangs and who have deep fractures between them. Cobe persistently, but carefully, keeps opening doors, and gradually it seems that they decide to slide through them together, however tentatively.

But then there is the case of 18-year-old Lil’ Mike who summons the gumption to apologize to the owners of a barbershop he had robbed a few years before, and now is a CeaseFire Interrupter working with youth. The scene, mixing Lil’ Mike’s forthrightness with the barber owner’s anger, truth-telling, lack of sentimentality, and gesture of reconciliation, is jaw-droppingly moving. From many angles the film makes the point that both violence and nonviolence hinge on a subtle dance between an individual’s journey, the abiding challenges of interpersonal relationships, and the larger narrative of the community’s story and history.

There is a short but intriguing debate in the film about the larger impact of CeaseFire’s approach. One the Interrupters calls it a Band-Aid, while the director says that the broader project of structural change—including job creation and new community resources—itself depends on this kind of violence reduction.

Aside from these perspectives, it is possible to discern in this initiative an emerging anti-violence movement and potentially a broadly based movement for nonviolent social change. Ameena, Cobe, Eddie—and the many others featured in the film, including the people they are working with and supporting on the street—may become the leaders of an inclusive project that invites people from all sides of the line to turn from cycles of violence to building powerful movements struggling for economic justice and human rights.

The work of the Interrupters offers to all of us a clear and detailed example of how nonviolent change works. It is not passive, weak, ineffective, naïve, simplistic, or utopian. It is not perfect. It can be courageous, intentional, messy, creative, and able to re-weave the web a little bit at a time.

We have much to learn from this startling film.

To see a list of theatrical screenings across the US, click here.

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