Go see The Interrupters

I caught this new documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) & Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) during its sold-out run at the Siskel Center last week.

Trailer: The Interrupters

Imagine walking down a street where everyone is armed – with guns, rocks, knives – and a fight is breaking out. Imagine walking into the middle of that fight armed with nothing but your own love, your own courage, about 40 hours of conflict and anger management training, and the lessons of your own violent past. Imagine pulling the participants apart, listening to their grievances, and talking them into being a little bit better than they think they can be, and if you do your work right – if you can listen hard enough and love hard enough – maybe no one dies today. That’s what the Violence Interrupters of CeaseFire do. They are former violent criminals who are trained to defuse violent situations in their communities. Their criminal pasts lend them insight, wisdom, and instant respect and credibility in the communities they work in. It helps that the three Interrupters the filmmakers follow closely (Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra) are also people of great personal charisma and honesty.

If you want a traditional, official film review, check out the AV Club review and Roger Ebert’s Sun Times review.

If you want a messy personal story with some flailing about and crying, keep on reading.

The film affected me profoundly. There is a scene in the film where Eddie Bocanegra teaches an art class to Chicago Public School students, and gets the students to talk about their experiences and fears about violence. The amount of anxiety and grief that these kids carry inside them is heartbreaking. One girl tells the story about her downstairs neighbor getting shot, and breaks into tears in the middle of it, and that’s when the tears came for me. I’m an adult woman and I’ve felt like that child for a year.

Last summer I walked out my front door at the corner of Magnolia and Sunnyside in Chicago and witnessed the murder of 21-year-old Aaron Carter. The movie that plays over and over inside my head starts with the sound of breaking glass. Two guys threw a bottle at a car. I looked at where the sound came from, and watched the driver of the car get out of the car and fire two shots into the guys who threw the bottle. Then he got back into the car and drove down the block toward me. He made and held eye contact with me, and I watched him make a mental calculation about whether to shoot me too. Frozen to the spot, I felt like if I looked away from his eyes and moved or ran or screamed, he definitely would shoot me. In a strange way I owe him the whole rest of my life for making the decision not to. Once he turned the corner, the screaming started as I tried to get back into my house – I was fumbling with my keys and ringing all the buzzers and begging someone to let me back inside. The police showed up very quickly and my partner went out and found an officer to interview me and let me know that the shooting was part of a gang dispute, and also that one of the men who was shot died.

I moved through the rest of the summer in a bubble. Every time I stepped outside my door, it was with me. Every time I heard gunshots in the night, it was with me. I couldn’t sleep one day, and then I’d spend 2 days in a row doing nothing but sleep, wanting to cocoon myself away from everything. I obsessively read the neighborhood blog, and watched my neighbors basically have a KKK meeting in the comments. Obviously Carter’s death affected his friends, family, his girlfriend, and his unborn child far more than it affected one middle class white girl who lived across the street, but if it could crack my world open like an egg what was it doing to them? I don’t want to act like he is important only as some catalyst for my own personal growth. He was a human being, and when he died something of value went out of the world. He was connected to every single person who lived on that street, whether or not we wanted to own the connection. I can only write about my own experiences, so that’s what you get.

I thought I was a hip city dweller who understood that crime was just the occasional price you might pay for living in a cool place. I was beaten up and mugged once long ago, and while I still won’t let anyone get too close up behind me on a sidewalk, I had mostly moved into a “can’t control it, can’t worry about it” place. I knew that Chicago was two cities, the shiny prosperous city with cool theatres and restaurants and tall buildings, and the poor crumbling city, and I knew that the Uptown neighborhood was one of the places where the borders were permeable. It was really interesting to think about David Simon’s arguments about the death of blue collar work inside the American City as a direct cause of the drug war while I watched The Wire. It really made me feel in the know as I watched little scenes from The Wire taking place all around me. “You know it’s cold when even the drug dealers on Wilson Avenue stay inside,” I Tweeted one January night.

After Aaron Carter’s death, there was only one city for me. My privilege had allowed me to pretend that there were two, for a while. And while The Interrupters observes rather than prescribes and gives no easy answers, that is the message I took away from the film: The Other City is OUR city. The desperation there, the hunger and poverty, the lack of hope, the violence, the depression, the many thousands of people living with constant threat of violence and constant PTSD from the things they have witnessed, the parts of town we just give up on – “We’ll be safe, as long as we never go to ___ neighborhood” – that slow daily horror is with and around us. We know it is. Violence infects our lives. It’s only through extraordinary acts of willful obliviousness, through a massive shared hallucination or cognitive dissonance that we can pretend that it’s somehow not our problem.

The scope of the civil rights failures and economic injustice in the film leave me with more emotions than solutions, but one concrete thing I can say is “It’s the jobs, stupid.”

In one scene, Rep. LaShawn Ford talked about sending the National Guard in to deal with Chicago’s violence problem. Constituents in the room reacted pretty vehemently against this proposal, bringing up 1968 (still a very sore subject here) and jobs, jobs, jobs. As CeaseFire struggles for funding (Cobe Williams and “Flamo” attended my screening and said that budget cuts have reduced the number of Interrupters on the streets from a high of 100 to about 25), that means that 75 ex-offenders lose work and the organization can function in far fewer neighborhoods. Li’l Mikey, an 18-year-old armed robber who served 3 years in prison, finds work helping out at a pre-school. He and another young guy are tasked with digging up some grass in the yard, and the lady who runs the school comes and gives them a talking-to about doing things right. As he digs up the grass, Mikey bitches about having a boss and how he never had to deal with stuff like that when he was on the streets with his friends, but pretty soon pride takes over his face. He’s never had a job before. He never thought he would have a job. He’s got a boss he can bitch about, like a normal grownup. By the end of it, he’s grinning from ear to ear.

I want to show this film to every CEO and corporate board who gutted American cities when they shipped manufacturing jobs overseas in the last 30 years, especially to countries like China, where capitalism and state coercion have combined so insidiously and so perfectly. I want to say “This is what you bought – this poverty, this desperation, this violence, this hopelessness, this hunger. Was it worth it? Can you live with it?” Did we think that we could just give up on huge swaths of the population and suffer no consequences? Did we think that we could make entire populations expendable and somehow insulate ourselves while they tore each other apart? I want to show this to every right wing politician and voter who has ever used the word ‘bootstraps’ ever, except because of the extremely unflinching and honest way the film portrays some of the characters, they might take it as a racist reason that the people don’t “deserve” help. You must have a certain basic level of human empathy to ride this ride.

Watching the interrupters spend themselves over and over again to lift up the people around them one angry, desperate, hurting, shamed person at a time, I kept thinking the words “love,” “faith,” “hope,” and “courage” and wishing some of that would rub off on me.

Sometimes during this past year of antidepressants and uncontrollable shaking and crying from flashbacks brought on by the sound of breaking glass, I would have given anything to go back to the Chicago of cute brunch places and concerts-in-the-park. But like the bad fairy at the christening who gives only poisoned, truthful gifts, Aaron Carter’s murderer showed me the real city when he took Carter’s life and gave me back my own. Steve James showed it to me again and asked me not to give up on the people who live there, even scared dumb angry kids like the one who looked into my eyes that day. I’m still working out the details of “when” and “how exactly?” (Teacher? Writer? Activist? Teachtavist?), but I know what love and courage I can summon must rise and serve that broken place.

This entry was posted in Crime, Movies, Poverty, Racism, Recommended and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Go see The Interrupters

  1. Kristen J. says:

    It is strictly against the rules to make me cry at work.

    Thank you for the recommendation and sharing your story.

  2. Chally says:

    I don’t know what to say, Captain, but thank you for writing this.

  3. catfood says:

    Adding to the cycle: The guy who gets involved in crime, gets caught, and does some time when young… becomes unemployable and remains so. So even if jobs do come around someday, they’re not for him. And it never gets better.

  4. April says:

    Yes, thank you for writing this. Very powerful piece, and also, it made me think of what’s happened in my old neighborhood in Minneapolis since I moved last year. Your mention of how there is this thought that there are “two cities,” with the hip places you go and the other side you avoid, was, and still is, quite true in Minneapolis, as well.

  5. Travis says:

    Damn, Jennifer. I will definitely see this.

  6. Gretel says:

    Well, damn. I need to see this sooner than today.

    Thank you for sharing your story, as hard as that may have been.

  7. Steve James says:

    Thank you so much for this essay and deeply personal reflection on the violence. This is the most moving thing I’ve seen written about the film and really hits home with the message that this is a social ill that we all need to care about.

  8. William says:

    I considered going Anon for this one but…it somehow feels false to not let myself be accountable about these things.

    I’ve spent my entire life in Chicago. I grew up in a neighborhood with a strong Outlaw presence, I’ve been mugged, I’ve been harassed by our unusually repugnant police force, I worked at Roberto Clemente, I live in West Rogers Park not more than two blocks from where I bought drugs in high school. This post is tough for me because, while I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, I have a lot of trouble feeling anything about the death of a man like Aaron Carter. I know that poverty and the lack of gainful working class employment is at the root of the gang problem in Chicago, as much of a beef as I have with Ceasefire’s other policies and programs I know that their violence interrupters do incredible work, but I still cannot manage to muster empathy around Carter’s death.

    Right now I live at the border between GD and 4CH territory and yet, its had relatively little influence on my life. Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable walking around at night, but that has more to do with the implicit racism thats part of growing up white in Chicago than it does with any real threat. The reality is that I’m white, I’m middle class, I’m male, and so I’m off limits. People don’t even try to sell to me. There is an unspoken understanding that you don’t fuck with the yuppies because that gets the cops and the Alderman involved and because we’re not involved. I live just down the block and yet its as if I’m in a different nation.

    The other side of that is that poor, black residents are fair game. Thats not just because the police don’t really care, but also because there are men like Carter who are willing to take advantage while the cops are busy generating revenue by writing street cleaning tickets. One requires the other. Sure, Carter’s death had effects on a lot of other lives, but…I’m hesitant to cry for him. His community, absolutely, but not for him.

  9. m says:

    Actually saw it in SLC at Sundance, as a Chicago resident, found it extremely moving.

    Thanks very much for sharing your story, I think it adds another excellent layer to the story the film tells.

  10. Captain Awkward says:

    Steve James:
    Thank you so much for this essay and deeply personal reflection on the violence.This is the most moving thing I’ve seen written about the film and really hits home with the message that this is a social ill that we all need to care about.

    I have an enormous respect for the level of trust you gain from your subjects and show for your audience. I’ve been needing to write about last summer for a year, thank you for finally giving me a way to process it.

    P.S. If you have any extra footage of the roller-skate party, I could watch those guys skate all day.

  11. suspect class says:

    Captain Awkward, thank you for your post. I’m a Chicagoan away from home for the last few years, weighing whether or not to come home, and this served as an unexpected reminder of what continues to happen in my city, year after year. I have many memories of this part of Uptown; suffice to say, this hit home on a number of levels. Not to mention my memory of watching hoop dreams as a kid and being struck with the realization that there are at least two, if not several, Chicagos.

  12. Sadly Cynical says:

    What enrages me is that some largish proportion of the population is absolutely okay with the inner city problem. They take great moral pride and satisfaction in those few random programs that will find the occasional “good” urban kid and get him out of there to be shipped off to the ivy league, but they will argue against any other kind of social program or assistance or urban development initiative that favors these populations. Apparently, everyone else in the inner city deserves what they get, and killing each other off isn’t a problem, it’s part of the solution.

    As long as the violence and decay stays away from nice white people, that is.

    It’s a horrible conclusion to draw, but I can’t see how else to explain the way we (don’t) handle the urban problem and the manner in which many of the wealthy, privileged, and other “hard-working red-blooded taxpaying Americans” discuss the problems of the inner city and its residents.

  13. William, thank you describing so clearly why I feel threatened by the presence of white men. Your refusal to feel empathy is terrifying.

  14. maruja de lujo says:

    I … watched my neighbors basically have a KKK meeting in the comments.

    To compare your neighbours’ comments to a Klu Klux Klan meeting is to trivialize the murders and other obscene intimidation tactics carried out by the Klu Klux Klan.

  15. BHuesca says:

    I was in grad school at the University of Chicago, beginning fall of 2008. When my mom moved me into my new apartment, they gave us both rape whistles before they even gave me my keys. The University held orientations where they told us how very very lucky we were that there was extra security due to the upcoming presidential election and the proximity to the Obama residence on 51st and the fact that the Obama children went to the private Lab School on 59th. They told us we could go, cautiously, between 53rd and 59th and MAYBE across the Midway but only if we were in law school or the school of social work- and between Stony Ridge and Cottage Rd (I think- the names are a distant memory now) and they kept telling us the blue light phones were on every corner and so were the cops and we couldn’t, just couldn’t, go outside of that area, unless we took the red line IN A GROUP and went to the downtown, Michigan avenue type area. One of my roommates (in the school of social work, in case you couldn’t guess) asked why: wasn’t that pretty darn discriminatory?

    And here was the university’s response: we can’t protect everyone, the university police force wasn’t meant to cover the entire city – just the campus, so we’re trying to do triage here, because the neighborhood (Hyde Park) is bleeding.

    And I remembered that every time I heard about an elementary kid getting shot in the crossfire coming home from school, a gang fight on 64th, getting gas around 49th St and noticing that everyone but me was armed, noticing that most gunshot victims weren’t even identified by name in the newspaper because they were minors, anything – I’m ashamed to say that there were so many shootings and so many deaths, I let them blur in my mind. I just kept remembering the little rectangle that the university said would be safe for us, and quite frankly, I pretty much stayed in it. And I remembered the triage metaphor, and how “lucky” we were to have the black helicopters and the random searches that were national security on campus, and I … I don’t know what I could have done, what I was supposed to do, but I still feel guilty that I could just graduate and got out.

    Thank you, Captain Awkward. I really appreciate your post.

  16. Anonymouse says:

    To compare your neighbours’ comments to a Klu Klux Klan meeting is to trivialize the murders and other obscene intimidation tactics carried out by the Klu Klux Klan.

    To claim that you’re “starving” before eating a meal is to trivialize the people around the world who suffer from malnutrition.

    Or, y’know, we could just not be the metaphor police and not take things literally.

  17. Elaine says:

    A very real footnote as to why the cycle of violence needs to be stopped, whether by the interrupters of CeaseFire or someone else:

    You saw two men get shot last summer. One, Aaron Carter, died. The other, Brayant Rodgers, survived, but murdered someone from a rival gang in January, right in front of an undercover policeman, just a block from where he himself was shot. That’s what he learned from his near-death experience: Pay it forward. This never-ending escalation must be interrupted.

  18. William says:

    William, thank you describing so clearly why I feel threatened by the presence of white men. Your refusal to feel empathy is terrifying.

    First, it isn’t a refusal. I’m not witholding empathy, the truth is that I just don’t feel it for people like Aaron Carter. Its something I’m especially aware of because I’m an extremely empathic person. It is rare that I cannot share in someone’s feelings.

    The problem for me, ultimately, is that Carter isn’t one of the many innocent victims of the violence men like him commit while the police turn a blind eye. He is a victim of a city that didn’t give him options but, to be blunt, the vast majority of people like him don’t choose to prey on their neighbors. They get by, they struggle, they fail and they succeed and they live and the hurt and they don’t make the simple choice to take the hurt they feel and balm it a little by taking from their communities. Most of the poor (and disproportionately of color) people who live in neighborhoods with reputations as dangerous are decent people living difficult lives with limited resources. But every community has it’s predators. The difference between Aaron Carter and Jon Burge is, to me, one of circumstance rather than substance.

    Its tough for me to share his feelings, to feel as he does, because I’ve been there. I’ve had the chance to make that choice, I’ve been at that dark place where you think to yourself and say “maybe I should just take what I want, god knows no one would stop me.” I’ve been in a place where I had to do things I shouldn’t have in order to keep living, where people got hurt because someone was going to and it wasn’t going to be me. The difference, though, is that while many of us end up in that bad place there is still always a choice. Do you embrace the worst in yourself or do you resist it?

    I’m not proud that I do not feel for Aaron Carter, but I don’t feel it would be honest to lie or stay silent, either. I feel like the truth is important, even when it is ugly.

  19. Captain Awkward says:

    Elaine, thank you for connecting the dots about Brayant Rodgers. I knew he was shot also but had not fully connected him with the murder (and subsequent bust) of the dealers from that area.

    Maruja de Lujo, it was certainly not my intent to trivialize anything. Here is a sampling of quotes from that blog in the days after the shooting (and I took screencaps, so if they want to clean things up, that’s fine with me):

    “You know it’s gotten to the point where freedom and rights need to go out the window. For example, stopping and frisking loiters…the ACLU took that away from the police. Police cannot disperse loiterers. They cannot stop and frisk people randomly that they suspect of having a weapon….so as long as you have the ACLU backing up the thugs then you won’t have police doing what they need to do.”

    “The gangmembers shot are not the victims… we are. The fact that the community is uneasy walking near that corner is a pretty good indication.

    And now tonight a prayer vigil. Wow.”

    “Seriously, the person killed had a wrap sheet of priors. He wasn’t doing anybody any good. And honestly, had if he had been carrying a firearm, he would have done the same thing and then we’d be talking about the same thing, different person.”

    “Aaron Carter was in the gang right? So he’s one of the people who has been terrorizing my neighborhood? Why are we all feeling sorry for him? Shouldn’t we be shaming him and his family for all the problems they’ve caused our neighborhood?

    I’m sorry, but on this one, I can’t agree with the rest of you. Aaron decided to dance with the devil, so he deserved what he got, I just wish he got it in another ward.”

    ” I find it ironic…people mourning the fact that his kid(s?) will grow up without a father. Seriously, if Daddy was a banger, with a rap sheet, it’s all for the better. And what makes anyone think he was any kind of father in the first place. Amazing how you have to get a license to cut hair, but not to have kids.”

    “Why do I have the horrible feeling that that vigil is going to be played up as a vigil for a “victim?” I sure hope the news media portrays this as it is … a gangbanger who died in a GANG shootout.”

    “I feel bad for the kids but at some point those kids gotta look at the world and figure it out. We’ve all had tough times one way or another; some rise up and others fall down. A shame? Sure. But don’t get confused on who are the victims of gang activity.”

  20. Rodeo says:

    (Sorry for the total screw-up on that comment. I’m posting from my phone so I guess something went wrong. Hopefully it’s fixed.)

    William, when your response to a story about the murder of a 21 year old kid that was the intended result after de-funding every available program to provide assistance to people who aren’t lily-white middle-class denizens of non-stop good decision-making is “eh, he probably snatch a few purses in his day, I don’t care,” well, that says more about you than his decisions say about him. Especially given that as a white man, the only way you can possibly understand what structural racism and sexism does to a person’s self-image, decision-making processes, and even their physiological capacity to process emotions is through developing an extremely strong sense of empathy.

    I’m terrified of you, and I pity you. I hope you are one day able to feel.

  21. Pingback: Guest post! “I would like to be GGG for my new chap, but we’re taking it reallllllllllly slow.” (Question #105) « CaptainAwkward.com

  22. Cherry Soda says:

    @Bhuesca, “I don’t know what I could have done, what I was supposed to do, but I still feel guilty that I could just graduate and got out.”

    Why do you feel guilty? Did you do something wrong?

  23. BHuesca says:

    @cherrysoda-

    No, it’s more that the U of C so strongly emphasized that university police were there to protect the university and university lab school students- and that they really meant protect them FROM the larger Hyde Park/Chicago community (read: Black) – and…I just accepted that as it was presented to me…it just seems a little wrong to me, now. That’s all.

  24. William says:

    Especially given that as a white man, the only way you can possibly understand what structural racism and sexism does to a person’s self-image, decision-making processes, and even their physiological capacity to process emotions is through developing an extremely strong sense of empathy.

    Trigger warning for child abuse.

    Yes, because being a survivor of rape, of physical abuse, of the incredible structural discrimination and sometimes outright violence I faced as a child with serious disabilities in the city of Chicago I know nothing of oppression. My lilly whiteness has left me blinded, and clearly a distant last in the oppression olympics, to be silent or scraping if I’ve any hope of redemption. Growing up with close relationships with men and women of color, being pulled over as a young child riding in a car and asked by a cop if “this nigger” had “kidnapped” me because someone I’d known all my life picked me up from school, repeating that dance over and over first with people I knew as “auntie” or “uncle” and then with friends, did little to crack my inability to feel for anyone of color as evidenced by the fact that I do not feel for Aaron Carter.

    But of course, I couldn’t “possibly understand” what those things meant, now, could I? I’m too white and too male to have cried with my patients, too broken by the unvarnished privilege to be anything other than what you fantasize me to be. Because, you know, we’re all the same, right?

    You want to talk about isms? You want to talk about terror? You want to talk about what those kinds of things do self image, decision making, and physical ability to process emotions? I could talk about being locked in a room with no light the stunk of someone else’s piss and blood and vomit, a room where I could touch all four walls at the same time even as a small child, being locked in for 8 hours because I was a “dangerous retard.” I could tell you about how people who knew of my sexual assault threatened me with rape in order to try to make me be a “good boy” and then, when they thought I was out of earshot, make a joke about me liking it because boys who get raped as children become faggots. I could talk about what that triggered in me as an adolescent who mostly liked girls but sometimes didn’t.

    But lets talk about terror. After a life of being preyed upon I still remember when I decided how I was going to respond to my terror. It was a line a 9 year old shouldn’t be able to comprehend. Sitting in a pitch black room with a bruise forming on a rib from a kick that a man gave a boy because he could and no one would believe a “crazy retard,” two of my limbs still numb from the “calm position,” out of tears and out of hope. A 9 year old boy dealing with an adult problem and deciding that they wouldn’t be easy prey, that they wouldn’t submit, that they wouldn’t bare their throat and hope that people who casually hurt others will hurt him a little less because he didn’t resist.

    As I got older, as puberty hit, as I went from a scrawny 9 year old to a man capable of inflicting real hurt I had to figure out who I was. I had to learn how I would respond to terror. The fear in me, despite a lack of violence, scared people because I had learned how to scare people out of hurting me. That mask became a part of me, something I couldn’t take down. And after awhile, it began to feel like me. And after a long while I came back from the edge of that bad place.

    I still live in terror. Sometimes I forget that I’m 6’1″, 270 pounds, that I look like trouble. I feel like that little boy, 9 years old and rail thin from the ritalin he didn’t need and trying so hard not to be a target. I flinch if people get too close to me on the subway, I clench and prepare to be hurt by people who do not even know I’m there. And, slowly, I come back from it. Its better now than it was 20 years ago. But the terror is still there because of men like Aaron Carter. And I know that he came from hurt, I know that he wasn’t born bad, I know that circumstances lead him to be who he became. But I also know, from experience, that at some point in his life he looked at another human being and said “whose going to stop me?” and didn’t manage to stop himself. At some point he crossed from victim to perpetrator. He went from the terrorized to the terror.

    I wish there were the resources available to bring him back from that. Hell, I’ve been the resources. But I do not mourn his loss. I can’t anymore than I could cry when the man who raped me was mugged and beaten so badly that he had brain damage. Empathy requires contact and I did not have contact with Carter. To really feel for someone else requires that you know them and I did not know him. For me, in my life, in my realm of experience, he’s just another abuser who died. I want there to be resources in place to stop his child from falling into that trap, I want organizations like CeaseFire to step in and break the cycle, I want jobs and industry and social supports to give people options

  25. William says:

    Aim for shift, hit something else. Damned CP? Anyway…

    I want there to be resources in place to stop his child from falling into that trap, I want organizations like CeaseFire to step in and break the cycle, I want jobs and industry and social supports to give people options so that they aren’t so badly hurt that and so utterly powerless that becoming what hurt them is all they have left. But at some point we also need to admit that, even though circumstances drove the Aaron Carters of the world to their deaths, they are still culpable for their actions.

    For me, personally, I have trouble feeling for him because I have trouble feeling for abusers. Maybe thats imperfect.

  26. Angel H. says:

    William,

    Get this straight: YOU ARE A WHITE MAN. No one is denying what you went through, but you didn’t go through them as a Black person. And this:

    Growing up with close relationships with men and women of color, being pulled over as a young child riding in a car and asked by a cop if “this nigger” had “kidnapped” me because someone I’d known all my life picked me up from school, repeating that dance over and over first with people I knew as “auntie” or “uncle”…

    Wasn’t about you. WILL NEVER BE ABOUT YOU. Again, no one is denying what you went though but you DO NOT know what it’s like to be oppressed AS A BLACK PERSON. Stop pretending that you. Your White privilege is showing.

  27. Rodeo says:

    William, I have similar experiences of child/teenaged/adult abuse that could spin your head as well. We all do. See a therapist if you’re still struggling.

    To err is human, to forgive divine. And I’m not talking about bullshit “say you’re sorry/now say it’s okay” type of forgiveness, I’m talking about recognizing how that kernel of hatred and anger inside your gut that forces you to suppress your ability to feel anything and instead remain apathetic after hearing Capt. Awkward describe how the murder of a 21 year old victim of oppression changed her life, how it basically prevents you from moving beyond your childhood, and saying you don’t need it anymore.

    You can let other people’s violence destroy your ability to feel compassion/sympathy/empathy for victims of institutional racism/sexism, or you can choose divinity. Hell, I don’t blame anyone for preferring the easy route, we all have limited energy, but that doesn’t make you any less scary or pitiful to me. Apathy, the inability to recognize another human being’s life as worthy of preservation, enables violence.

  28. Jadey says:

    Can we not delve into policing people’s emotions? It may make me sad to hear that someone doesn’t empathize with someone else because I’m kind of like that and on some level want everyone to empathize with everyone, but I still get skeeved out by suggestions of “You must feel this now or else you are a bad person!!!” Emotions don’t work that way. Especially something as deep and personal as empathy – if I felt everyone’s pain as deeply as they deserved, I would be an empty shell of a person in no time. I mean, talk about factors in activist burn-out. William can still oppose institutional oppression without emphathizing for a particular individual – lack of empathy does not mean overall apathy to the injustice of a situation. And reading his comments, I don’t personally see where he was using his reaction as a way of undermining the legitimacy of anyone else’s – I read it as him sharing his honest feelings, which I think are realistic even if they make me sad. I am very strongly reminded of a very amazing thread that happened on Feministe once where we talked honestly about our feelings toward people who have committed sexual assault, and people (including survivors) were able to express their anger and fear as well as their desire for a better justice system without trampling on how other people with similar stakes in the issue felt.

    I won’t argue that his White privilege isn’t showing with other aspects of his comments. I just hate seeing us go down the road of policing each other’s feelings and making activism and solidarity dependent on a particular emotional response that for very many reasons people might be incapable of mustering at a given moment.

  29. Jadey says:

    To not hide behind my own white privilege, I do need to say that I am aware that discussing a lack of empathy in a racialized context (which was not explicitly present in the sexual assault thread) has the baggage of the fact that as a society, we tend to regard people of colour with less empathy because of racism (as demonstrated by some of the neighbours’ comments shared by the OP), and no intentions are enough to negate that context. My objection is only to the idea that we have to empathize or else we are part of the problem and that a lack of empathy for a specific individual constitutes support for oppressive institutions, because I think demanding an emotional reaction of that nature from people is too problematic in and of itself and that while it can be helpful it isn’t always necessary for activism.

  30. Angel H. says:

    After reading Jadey’s posts, I feel I need to make a clarification: Now that understand where William’s feelings come from in regards to the abuse he suffered, I better understand where his lack of empathy comes from and I respect that. However, I still believe that he is showing his White privilege with the comment I quoted earlier.

  31. Cherry Soda says:

    “BHuesca 9.1.2011 at 9:09 am
    @cherrysoda-

    No, it’s more that the U of C so strongly emphasized that university police were there to protect the university and university lab school students- and that they really meant protect them FROM the larger Hyde Park/Chicago community (read: Black) – and…I just accepted that as it was presented to me…it just seems a little wrong to me, now. That’s all.”

    It wasn’t wrong. University police are hired by universities to protect the students and staff on campus, they are not getting paid to infiltrate the entire neighborhood.

    The rest of the neighborhood may indeed have been Black BUT if it was not a very high crime area then there would not need to be such a strong University police force, would there?

    Hence it had nothing to do with “protecting you from Black people” – it was about protecting you from a high crime area.

    And I’m sure many of the University police men and women were Black themselves.

  32. Jadey says:

    Ugh, I also want to apologize for my terrible grammar and style in the previous comments – commenting on the go is never a good idea.

  33. BHuesca says:

    @Angel H. – I of course cannot speak for William, nor would or could I try. But I do note that, as a frequent commenter here, he has mentioned his race a time or two.

    With that said- I don’t think being White means he, or anyone else, cannot/shouldnt have opinions/views/extra info/relevant info on a situation, and I don’t think that one’s race means that one cannot/should not (after acknowledging privilege, likely?) have further comment on any situation relevant to the post within the confines of the moderator’s guidelines.

    But this is just my opinion, don’cha know.

  34. Captain Awkward says:

    Jadey:
    Ugh, I also want to apologize for my terrible grammar and style in the previous comments – commenting on the go is never a good idea.

    Don’t worry about it. I really appreciate your comments. I’ve been at a loss for how to moderate this discussion and I don’t want to be interrogating one person’s emotions to this degree. Actions speak louder than feelings.

    William, I’m sorry you went through that and I appreciate your honesty. Have you seen the film? One of the extremely uneasy themes is that to interrupt the cycle of violence we’re going to have to embrace some methods and make use of people (like Eddie Bocanegra, who is a convicted murderer) in a way that goes beyond what we may feel capable of, and just be hopeful that people can be better than they have been. It’s a thin thread to hang from.

  35. Angel H. says:

    BHuesca: With that said- I don’t think being White means he, or anyone else, cannot/shouldnt have opinions/views/extra info/relevant info on a situation, and I don’t think that one’s race means that one cannot/should not (after acknowledging privilege, likely?) have further comment on any situation relevant to the post within the confines of the moderator’s guidelines.

    I don’t think so either, and that’s not what I said. My issue was that when Rodeo said this:

    Especially given that as a white man, the only way you can possibly understand what structural racism and sexism does to a person’s self-image, decision-making processes, and even their physiological capacity to process emotions is through developing an extremely strong sense of empathy.

    William said this:

    Yes, because being a survivor of rape, of physical abuse, of the incredible structural discrimination and sometimes outright violence I faced as a child with serious disabilities in the city of Chicago I know nothing of oppression. My lilly whiteness has left me blinded, and clearly a distant last in the oppression olympics, to be silent or scraping if I’ve any hope of redemption. Growing up with close relationships with men and women of color, being pulled over as a young child riding in a car and asked by a cop if “this nigger” had “kidnapped” me because someone I’d known all my life picked me up from school, repeating that dance over and over first with people I knew as “auntie” or “uncle” and then with friends, did little to crack my inability to feel for anyone of color as evidenced by the fact that I do not feel for Aaron Carter.

    But of course, I couldn’t “possibly understand” what those things meant, now, could I? I’m too white and too male to have cried with my patients, too broken by the unvarnished privilege to be anything other than what you fantasize me to be.

    That is what I took issue with. I’m not denying the oppression he endured, but it is not the same as being oppressed because of your race.

  36. LC says:

    I want to support what Janey said about policing people’s empathy.

  37. Captain Awkward says:

    Angel H. and Rodeo – noted. You’ve made your points clearly. Let’s drop William’s personal background as a topic for debate.

  38. La Lubu says:

    I also want to support what Jadey said about the policing of emotion, and will add that “choosing divinity” is one of the more fucked-up guilt trips laid at the feet of survivors. I’m a survivor of domestic violence, and I wish I had a dollar for every time some holier-than-thou person told me that by refusing to “forgive” by abuser, that I’m just as bad as he is and just as responsible for perpetuating the cycle of violence. Bullshit.

    Folks, this is a violent society, and one of the ways that manifests is that people are uncomfortable around survivors *as survivors*; are more comfortable around perpetrators of violence because that upholds the status quo–the existing ranking. I mean, one of the reasons it’s damn-near-worthless to call the cops in my neighborhood is because they have a greater respect for the criminals than for their victims. Violence is seen as *active*, proactive, strong…dare I say, *masculinized*. Whereas to be the victim of that violence is to be seen as weak, passive, *feminized*. And what are feminized people supposed to do? Be “divine”. Forgive. Let it go. They certainly aren’t supposed to take a stand, draw a line, and say never again.

    Why the hell is it up to survivors to do the emotional work of society? Why are we supposed to retain our compassion under (sometimes extraordinary) duress, when society at large is just as content to not have any of their own—to pretend that the violence of the streets isn’t a reflection of the greater violence of abandoned communities, hungry children, inadequate housing, environmental destruction, the dehumanization of everyday racism? Why is violence only named as such when it is visited by one individual upon another? Particularly when that violence is taking place by and on individuals who’ve been considered as throwaways?

  39. Rodeo says:

    William can still oppose institutional oppression without emphathizing for a particular individual – lack of empathy does not mean overall apathy to the injustice of a situation.

    Good point.

  40. Cherry Soda, enough. If you’d like to see your comments show up in the thread, please keep your posts on the topic of 1) The Interrupters, a new film by Steve James 2) Urban gang violence (Solutions? Experiences?). Thanks.

  41. Liz L says:

    Interesting that UofC popped up in the conversation so quickly- they don’t call Hyde Park the bubble for nothing. Talk about a place fraught with a century of messed up race relations but also brimming with all kinds of possiblity…

    But I think that Hyde Park is interesting because as a “break” in the city’s still-rigid color/class lines, it sets up a series of interactions between people who have been abandoned by the city and people whom the city values very much. Well-off students/faculty from a variety of backgrounds watch and sometimes brush up against the intense street violence of the surrounding communities from within that safe “bubble” described above. Danielle Allen has a great letter to the university at the end of her book Talking to Strangers where she takes Plato’s definition of the polis to redraw the map to create a broader community that would include Hyde Park and Kenwood with Woodlawn, Bronzeville, Washington Park, and parts of Englewood and the Pocket. What would the south side look like if the university had taken a broad-minded view of who constituted their community rather than burning “undesirable” properties out of existance to create an artificial boat in which to ride out the demographic changes that so altered the fabric of the city…?

    Another thing to be uber-conscious of in terms of Chicago in particular is the social-science lab-artificiality that sharply limited where Chicagoans, especially poor Chicagoans, could afford to rent (much less buy). From covenants and very deliberate neighborhood association-driven violence/intimidation to the Daley infrastructure projects that “saved”/isolated white ethnic neighborhoods from majority black neighborhoods to the construction of the high-rise project and then the “plan for transformation” destruction of these communities with no realistic plan to recreate the necessary housing stock to keep poor families in the city… None of this is natural, all of it is driven by the choices we made as citizens, voters, members of the community. Which complicity you would then think would tie us all together in addressing the crazy-complex city we inherited, no? But time and again, you see affluent (mostly but not all white) Chicagoans choosing to live apart, in bubbles of various sizes. Physical bubbles, but also bubbles in which access to resources, capital, and culture are hoarded at the expense of the entire fabric of the city.

  42. Jon Trott says:

    I’ve lived in Uptown Chicago, where Aron Carter was shot, for 35 years. I’ve been involved in what one has to call a class struggle here for most of that time, esp. since the mid 1980s when gentrifiers targeted the area.

    Cease Fire is a great organization. They are not going to solve this mess — no one organization or “solution” will do that. But I’ve marched with them and will do so again. They are good people.

    The “KKK-type” comments on the website in question got even worse than those listed here. I won’t say more there, as it makes me too upset to be kind, other than to note that it indeed is not overkill to think of the KKK when reading some of them.

    We’re all involved in a balancing act here. Everyone has to take responsibility. Yes, gang bangers will reap what they sow. But so will we. If we create simplistic narratives to avoid any social responsibility in the face of poverty’s impact on families, we *will* reap the consequences. The current Tea Party response to social stresses is sowing a bad, bad crop and all of us will reap a bitter harvest. Or, we can work and suffer with and for one another to try and ameleorate some of the forces at work against those most at risk to join gangs. Yes, hold them accountable if they do… but remember they could just as well be our children. And we might easily have been their parents.

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