Who’s to blame for the violence?

September 28, 2011

Helen Redmond reviews a documentary about the anti-violence group CeaseFire.

THE NEW documentary The Interrupters, co-produced by Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, and Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, captures in raw footage the physical violence in poor Black neighborhoods in Chicago.

Their cameras go into dilapidated places and dangerous spaces most filmmakers wouldn't dare or care to go. One of the strengths of the film is that instead of dry, white, Ivy League academics citing statistics and explaining violent crime, it is young Black and Latino survivors of violence and their families whose voices are front and center.

There are heartbreaking moments of unfiltered human rage and loss; funerals with many mourners wailing, collapsing and taking photos of their dead loved ones; as well as tenacious, trauma-surviving youth fighting the temptation of drugs and gangs, hoping to change their lives against enormous odds.

The film follows a trio of "violence interrupters" who work for CeaseFire, a community-based violence prevention organization. Outreach workers Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra and Ameena Matthews confront the fighting, feel the frustration on the streets and attend the funerals that families have to fundraise to afford.

Camera crews film "interrupter" Ameena Matthews
Camera crews film "interrupter" Ameena Matthews

Despite the many powerful stories of triumph and redemption, the film is fundamentally flawed. How is it that a documentary about violence in the Black community by well-known, anti-racists Kotlowitz and James ignores the profound impact of racism, poverty, police brutality, the racially biased criminal justice system, the war on drugs and institutional racism in creating violence? The viewer is led to believe that violence exists in a post-racial vacuum.

This is because Kotlowitz and James uncritically accept Dr. Gary Slutkin's theory of violence. Slutkin, an epidemiologist and founder of CeaseFire, believes violence is a disease like cholera or AIDS. In a confusing twist, he also thinks violence is a learned behavior and argues, "The principal driver of violent behavior is whether you think that someone in your peer group expects that of you."

So is it a disease or a learned behavior? Does Slutkin's theory apply to "peer groups" like the police force? Slutkin's solution to violence is to interrupt the escalation of grievances through mediation and conflict resolution. Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire in Illinois, believes, "We can change the culture if we downgrade or deglamorise acts of violence, make it not cool to be a violent person."

Review: Movies

The Interrupters, a documentary by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz.

Slutkin, Hardiman and the outreach workers at CeaseFire have the best of intentions. They're committed to ending violence.

But Slutkin's contradictory theory of violence is simply wrong and can't coherently explain where violence comes from. He disregards racism, the economic and social conditions that trigger unemployment, homelessness and despair, draconian drug policies that lock people up for decades, the police invasion of Black neighborhoods, and the role of corrupt politicians like former Mayor Richard Daley, who was an honorary CeaseFire co-chair in 2009.

These are the real drivers responsible for the violence in poor communities. It is the unrelenting discrimination and inequality that Black people suffer that sets up a minority to vent their anger and frustration by committing acts of interpersonal aggression.

Slutkin's solution is similarly flawed and can't interrupt the vast majority of violence because it focuses on reforming individuals, not reforming a system that produces the violence. His theory ends up blaming the victim and lets the brutal and racist capitalist system and the powerful individuals who run it off the hook.

And that's why the police support CeaseFire. That's why Tio Hardiman is invited to London after the riots to discuss violence prevention with UK law enforcement officials.

THE FILM follows three "interrupters." Cobe is a soft-spoken, sensitive father and husband who spent 12 years in prison for drug trafficking and attempted murder. At a young age, his father was beaten to death, and he started using drugs and joined a gang. In one of his most memorable scenes, Williams tries to de-escalate Flamo, a gang member whose fury against a rival gang enemy drives him to retaliate.

Flamo has nothing to lose--he's unemployed, undereducated and has already spent 15 years in prison. He gets in Cobe's face and yells, "Right now, how can you help me?" All Cobe has to offer is a meal and a sympathetic ear. And on that day, the "interruption" works.

In another series of intense, emotional scenes, Williams tries to counsel a family that is so full of resentment toward one another the screen almost explodes. It's clear that Williams doesn't have the skills of a family therapist and is in over his head. Later, he drives a reformed gang member, Lil' Mikey, fresh out of prison, back to the barber shop he robbed to apologize to his victims.

Eddie Bocanegra is an ex-gang member, car thief and artist who spent 14 years in prison for murder. He explains how the killing of a close friend confused and angered him. His parents are hard-working Mexican immigrants who weren't home much to care for him and his siblings. Bocanegra is a haunted man, still full of grief, which drives him to workaholism to forget his crimes.

Bocanegra admits he's just putting "Band-Aids" on the problem of violence. He talks about the need to address high school dropout rates, unemployment and the housing crisis.

Ameena Matthews is a one-woman Muslim ministry on a mission to stop violence, using a mix of tough and tender. Her head covered in a colorful orange hijab, Matthews walks fearlessly into scrums of angry women and men to mediate.

She is the daughter of Jeff Fort, the infamous founder of two Chicago gangs. At a young age, she got "caught up in the life," started using drugs and joined a gang. Matthews reveals she was shot and sexually abused, and discusses the profound effects both had on her life.

Matthews makes a series of impassioned speeches at funerals and on the streets in the aftermath of killings. She lovingly soothes the bereaved, but shames and blames groups of young people. In one scene, she angrily berates the crowd, "This is unacceptable for me to be holding this man's obituary. Let this be a wake-up call, let this be a stop call. Who does this baby belong to [she points to a young boy]? He's just hangin' around y'all, right? So he sees everything you all do, right? So if this brother right here catches a case, whose fault is it?"

Someone answers, "Our fault."

The Interrupters is a fascinating, frustrating and, at times, infuriating film to watch. But it would have been stronger and more satisfying if it had acknowledged the pervasive role of racism and poverty in American society.

Further Reading

From the archives