Girls’ Studies: The Violence Interrupters

I watched a documentary called The Interrupters (2011), which is about interrupting the violence occurring on Chicago’s streets. There are many organizations working to curb this violence, which kills many children each week, and one of them is The Interrupters. It is a group of former gang members who have decided to use their street credibility to mediate and solve conflicts. They get in the middle of fighting groups and talk down people with guns. They are remarkable.

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The movie follows three specific interrupters. My favorite was Eddie. He was a former gang member who was convicted of murder and spent some 17 years in jail. Upon his release, he changed his life and has been working to help families of victims and to stop the violence since then. He is a compelling figure, one that seems to be quiet, educated, and dignified. However, his past is lurid and he’s been through a lot. What moved me most about his work is his ability to reach children. Eddie spent time in schools talking with the kids about their situations and how he learned from his own mistakes. These young kids then confess things to him, like how scared they are when they hear shootings on their streets. One girl opened up to him in class about her fears, and she just broke down crying and sobbing. It was such a poignant and heartbreaking moment to see how truly affected she is by the violence in her neighborhood and how strong she is trying to be. She was a tiny little girl, of about 9 or 10, and yet she was dealing with very grown up problems. Eddie listened to her and used her comments to continue the class dialogue about fear and about trying to make the community a better place.

Eddie also spent some time one-on-one with a young boy who talked about his cousins who were getting into trouble on the streets. Eddie encouraged him to speak up and to be strong. This young boy was trying so hard not to cry, but he did and Eddie just calmly listened and helped to assuage his fears and give him needed courage. Eddie additionally spent time with some shooting victims’ families. He is truly doing good work to try to atone for his sins and his youthful mistakes. He hopes to someday visit the family of his victim and apologize to them. I hope he gets the chance and that it goes well.

Cobe is another interrupter. He actually helps a recently released felon, Lil Mikey, visit his victims and attempt to apologize and make restitution. Lil Mikey held up a barber shop at gun point. He terrorized the woman who owned the place and her children. He was nervous, but Cobe helped him get there and apologize. Lil Mikey took responsibility, gave a moving apology, and told of his attempts to change his life. The woman who owned the shop gave him quite a tongue-lashing, letting him know just how much his actions had hurt her and her family. But in the end, she forgave him and they hugged. This is the type of work the interrupters attempt to see done. They want the community to embrace forgiveness and letting go, rather than hold onto grudges and continue to seek revenge for every slight.

Much of the violence seemed to have stemmed from this attitude, that it is necessary to get revenge. I wrote about revenge in a Dorothy Whipple novel, but Chicago’s situation reminded me more of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is as if everybody has their own faction or neighborhood, and when somebody from one group insults somebody from another group, they must enact revenge. And the cycle never ends. All of the groups feel the need to protect their groups or their family members who were slighted, and they do this through violence. Many of the people in the movie were carrying guns or knives, and the clashes would break out in the streets or at schools without warning. One such incident left young Derrion Williams dead. His death drew national attention to the problem. The movie highlighted how many young people die in these clashes, and that most of them expect to die young. It is an epidemic.

Ameena was the female interrupter followed in the movie. She is the daughter of a former gang lord in the city, and she grew up and into this lifestyle of drugs, gun running, partying, and violence. However, she found her way out of it and to Islam. She married a sheikh and had some children. She now devotes her life to helping the kids on the streets avoid violence and learn healthier ways of dealing with their struggles. She took particular care of one girl named Caprysha, who had been abused as a child, had tried to raise her siblings, and was now trying to graduate from high school. It was moving to see how much Ameena cared for her, even when Caprysha rejected the help and messed up. The other interrupters noted that Ameena was often able to reach people and stop situations that other interrupters could not. She is brave and her voice is needed on those streets.

Their voices are effective because of their credibility of having “been there” and “done that.” They belong to the community and they have the benefit of knowing what these kids are going through. This makes for effective mediators with ethos. As I watched, I kept wondering if I could be like them. I can’t. I don’t have their ethos.

However, I am equipped to help people in my own community and through my own experiences. I saw this in action, to my surprise, when I worked with the young women at my church. I was so nervous and shy when I first began teaching them and hanging out with them at activities, but soon specific girls were flocking to me and asking for my help and advice. I was somehow able to connect with the girls that the other leaders had trouble reaching. I realized that my experiences with being a child of divorce, with having a gay dad, with struggling as an outcast in a small town, with moving a few times as a child, and with having a crazy relationship with my mom all enabled me to be compassionate and empathetic. I reached the girls who also struggled. I’ve had girls admit to me all sorts of struggles, most of which are hard to talk about or admit in our religious culture. Yet all of the girls who had deep pain or fears are the ones whom I was able to reach, just by being me. They came to me, without me forcing them to or asking them to confide in me. I learned from that experience that this is one of my talents, and I can look on the hard things in my childhood as blessings because they gave me this gift.

I think this is illustrative of how The Interrupters are so effective at their work. Eddie was comforting to the school children who faced violence because they knew he KNEW exactly what that was like, and they knew that he had participated in it and found a way out. I laughed when their teacher tried to offer her listening ear, and they looked at her like she was crazy. They wanted to speak with Eddie, not her. That part of the movie really touched me.

This was a moving and terrifying documentary. I was vaguely aware of some of the violence in Chicago, but I had no idea of the actual way it played out. This documentary raises awareness of the problem and highlights the positive solutions being implemented by community members. It was important to the people in these neighborhoods to feel as if their problems were being addressed from the inside, and the interrupters, with their firsthand knowledge, were able to reach people and mediate situations that government officials cannot. They are doing good work.

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