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 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.