Chicago’s problem with youth and gang violence isn’t unknown; the city has been referred to as a war zone by law enforcement, newscasts and city officials alike. Well over 400 people became victims of homicide in Chicago in 2010 alone. The Interrupters, directed by Steve James, showcases a unique idea to cope with the problem of violence Chicago is currently facing: interrupt it.
The CeaseFire “violence interrupters” are a team of men and women (usually with a history of youth violence themselves) who try to interrupt and mediate conflicts instead of arresting and incarcerating the people involved. They maintain that violence is a learned behavior. It’s not enough to arrest people and put them in jail; it’s about stopping the cycle of violence itself, not individual offenders.
CeaseFire formed in 2000 in one of Chicago’s most violent neighbourhoods, West Garfield Park. In the first year of its existence, Chicago saw shootings in the city reduced by 67 per cent, according to the CeaseFire website. While that seems like an unbelievably large statistic for only one year, the film shows us how CeaseFire accomplished this, and makes us realize the value of peacekeeping.
The people involved in CeaseFire aren’t exactly ordinary, law-abiding, third-party citizens preaching to gang members about how violence is wrong. If that was how it worked, the success of the group would likely be minimal. Instead, the CeaseFire staff who participated in the documentary all have a history of gang involvement, violence and jail time themselves. They’ve all been there, so they know exactly what it takes to mediate violent conflicts.
Ameena Williams is one of the people the film follows most — she is the daughter of Jeff Fort, a prominent gang leader in Chicago, and was a gang enforcer herself when she was a teenager. Tio Hardiman, creator and director of the Violence Interrupters program, is a former street hustler. One of the most successful violence interrupters, Cobe Williams, served jail time for drug trafficking and attempted murder. These are the people best suited for the job of mediation in Chicago’s gangs; they’re respected on the street and taken seriously because they have relevant experience.
Before seeing The Interrupters, the concept of a random group of citizens running around and interrupting youth violence may seem crazy, almost laughable. But it’s not quite like that at all. The violence interrupters aren’t super heroes, they’re not law enforcement, and they’re not self-righteous saviors. They’re people trying to make a difference through peaceful mediation. The film does an amazing job of portraying the staff of CeaseFire as human, people just like you and me, who promote a culture of peace instead of violence. If the violence interrupters can turn their lives around and become peaceful mediators, that lets the youth around them know that such possibilities exist for them too.
Emotion is a big part of this film, and rightly so. By revealing the emotional reactions of families who have lost loved ones, and of the former violent offenders who have turned their lives around, the film reveals the human side of the equation. It digs deeper, past death before dishonour and revenge killings, to raw human emotions and hope for healing.
Here is the proof. The Interrupters shows us that revenge, honour and pride don’t mean much in the long run. Family, friendship and understanding are the things that pull us all together for life. Fighting fire with fire creates an uncontrollable blaze of hate and resentment. Fighting fire with water makes a hell of a lot more sense.
The Interrupters will be playing at Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St., from Nov. 23-27, and Nov. 30 – Dec. 1, all showings at 7 p.m..