Where I Learned All My Life's Lessons
To stop a killer, you have to be able to intercept whispers.
The murder of Derrion Albert seemed a turning point. A 16-year-old student at Fenger High School in Chicago, Albert was beaten to death in September 2009 during a confrontation in Roseland, a confrontation that happened to be caught on video. The video shows that the boy is hit multiple times with a railroad tie and then stomped on once he’s on the ground. It’s a horrific, hectic scene, and it has helped to convict four suspects. But even as the video attracted international attention, as well as public statements by Jesse Jackson and then Mayor Richard M. Daley, Eric Holder and Arne Duncan, it also only exposed what too many Chicagoans already knew, that “invisible violence” was ravaging the city.
CeaseFire is one group working to intervene in this “war zone.” And their efforts are made visible in The Interrupters. This magnificent documentary, from producer/director Steve James and author-turned-producer Alex Kotlowitz, is the centerpiece screening of this year’s Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. It describes its focus in an opening title: “One year in the life of a city grappling with violence.” That year is laid out by seasons in the film, but it’s shaped by three Interrupters, former offenders now dedicated to stopping acts of violence. As it details their backstories and their current efforts, the movie also considers CeaseFire’s premise, that violence can be treated like a disease, that its transmission can be interrupted.
This premise is articulated by epidemiologist and CeaseFire co-founder Gary Slutkin: “We used to look at people with plague, leprosy, or TB as bad and evil people,” he says, “And something needs be done about them and they were put in dungeons. People did not understand what was going on. The plague was an invisible bacteria inside a flea inside a rat. What perpetuates violence can be as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were.” Indeed, he goes on, the disease is not a moral failing, and judging it as such only makes the problem worse. Young offenders are caught in a cycle, he points out, “They see violence as their disease, what they expect to die of, is this.”
Ameena Matthews means to intercede. She knows something about violence, says CeaseFire co-founder Tio Hardiman: “She gets in where a lot of guys can’t get in, guys got murder in their background, they respect her.” She comes by this in hard ways: her father is Jeff Fort, the notorious co-founder of the Black P Stones gang convicted in 1987 of “conspiring with the Libyans to commit acts of terrorism here in the United States.”
But, Ameena clarifies, if his name means something to the men she confronts each day, “It wasn’t his influence that influenced me to do anything. When I was conceived, he was 16 years old.” Rather, she remembers being abused as a child, and her subsequent decisions to rebel, to embrace a gang of her own, decisions she now recognizes as repetitions of what she learned. She sees some of herself in 18-year-old Caprysha, who finds it difficult to break free of drugs and hopelessness. They meet on park benches, sometimes laughing, sometimes arguing, their faces turned away from each other, their jaws set in wide angle close-up. When Caprysha misses a roller skating date, Ameena explains, “She acted out on some old behavior, doing exactly what she was taught. She violated parole, she’s in the county jail.”
This point, that offenders do what they’ve been taught, is made more than once in The Interrupters. “People believe in punishment,” says Slutkin, because when “you punish a young person, he stops. But he actually learns to mimic the punishment.” Slutkin looks out at room full of CeaseFire members, nodding their heads. They know this story, and they hope to change it, one person at a time. “It’s true there’s only so much I can do,” sighs Ameena, “It’s only one Caprysha, but there’s hundreds of thousands of Capryshas out there.”
Still, one is better than none. And this is how The Interrupters works, telling individual stories to get at the larger principle. Eddie Bocanegra can’t yet bring himself to speak to the family of the boy he killed. After serving a 14-year prison sentence, Eddie now speaks with other victims’ families, sharing stories of trauma and grief. He also works with kids who live too close to violence, helping them sort through their feelings through art. Some kids are angry, like he was. “‘Fuck tomorrow,’ that’s what they tell you. ‘I’m trying to make sure I don’t get shot.’” Eddie understands that response. After a visit with one family at a gravesite (“How often do you come here?” he asks, “Every day,” says Vanessa, the victim’s sister), he drives away, pondering options, his profile sharp and dark against the sunlight: “This is it, man, this is the end result. You took a life now, you paying with your life.”
It’s a lesson embodied by Cobe Williams too, who brings the film crew along with him and Lil Mikey Davis, 17 years old and just released after serving two and a half years for armed robbery. They go to see the owners of the barbershop he and two other boys held up. The scene is difficult: following Mikey’s apology, a woman tells him what he did that day, to her and her daughter, the memories haunting them to this day. “I deal with this every day of my life,” she says tearfully, then embraces the boy, urging him, “You be a better man.” Another victim looks Mikey up and down and observes, “It takes a lot of guts to walk on the surfaces you did dirt on.” It also takes guts, the film proposes, to work each day at not doing more dirt, as you see Mikey determining to be a better model for his younger brother, working in a day care center, and even seeking work with CeaseFire.
The organization has never hired someone so young, Tio explains. They have a hard enough time convincing local authorities that what they’re doing is sound, that they’re not “coddling” offenders or withholding information from police. To stop violence, Tio says, “You gotta drown yourself with the people and immerse yourself in the bullshit. You have to talk as if, ‘Man, I understand, man, I know how it is to hurt another person.’” He’s on a sidewalk with a new client, just out of the hospital, limping as he walks, his head bandaged so he looks like the Invisible Man. Once you get someone listening, Tio submits, “Once you make sense out of the madness, then you start talking about the scientific theory.” You can offer a “history lesson,” show how his father did this too, his brother or cousin. And at last, Tio says, you can make the case: “It’s time to save yourself, brother.”
The Interrupters shows how this can work. In spite of missteps and steps back, in spite of the many times that the interrupters attend funerals and console grieving parents, they try again and again. If they can stop one act of violence, they might stop another.