Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

The Interrupters

This film was co-produced by Steve James (one half of the team that created Hoop Dreams) and author/journalist Alex Kotlowitz (best known for his book There Are No Children Here, about two brothers growing up in the Henry Horner projects). It chronicles one year on the streets of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods through the eyes of three “violence interrupters” for an organization called CeaseFire.

CeaseFire (now known as CureViolence) was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who believes that since violence seems to mimic the same patterns as infectious disease, it should be treated as such by public authorities and the community. Namely by going after the most infected and attempting to treat the outbreak at its core.

The interrupters are key to this effort, going into distressed areas where violence has recently occurred and encouraging those closest to the victims (and the victims themselves) not to seek retribution. The interrupters mission literally brings them into the midst of a storm as they try and calm communities long wracked by violence and strife on the heels of a fresh incident.

This is aptly illustrated by a scene in the film where a fight occurs on the street right outside of a CeaseFire strategy meeting and everyone heads outside to stop things from escalating. This becomes especially difficult after a sister of an injured party rushes to the scene to seek vengeance for her bloodied brother and begins wielding a brick at members of the opposite faction.

The three interrupters followed by the filmmakers; Ameena Mathews (daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort), Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra; all have past gang memberships and criminal records. This gives them a certain cachet as they try to discourage young gang members to not only resist the temptation to commit retaliatory violence in the moment, but also to eschew the gang lifestyle altogether.

The film follows their attempts to lead young people out of the cycle of crime and to quell strife in the affected communities, and also in their efforts to make up for their own criminal pasts and deal with their troubled consciences over past acts of violence. This struggle is acutely felt by Bocanegra, who details his attempts to come to terms with a murder he committed during his teens. The same theme of redemption is also illustrated by a wrenching scene where Cobe Williams takes a young recently released felon who has turned his life around back to the very barber shop he was convicted of robbing years before to apologize to those people he terrorized by his actions. An exchange between the young man and one of the women he robbed is an amazing illustration of the human capacity to change and to forgive, and of the incredible courage it takes to do both.

A major incident covered by the film is the killing of Derrion Albert, whose death during a massive street brawl was captured on video and received worldwide coverage. The filmmakers show the behind the scenes strategy sessions of CeaseFire as they scramble to prevent retribution and deal with the underlying community tensions that fueled the incident in the first place.

Of course the very gang backgrounds that provide credibility to the interrupters when they interact with residents of distressed areas are a red flag to law enforcement agencies, who view CeaseFire’s activities with varying degrees of suspicion and mistrust; particularly the fact that the interrupters will not share information gained during their interventions with authorities. Not surprisingly, CeaseFire responds that they are a violence reduction initiative, not a police agency, and that they would lose all credibility with the community if people felt they couldn’t be trusted.

The uneasy relationship between the interrupters and the police continues to this day, as do the problems of violence in the places where they work. The Interrupters doesn’t provide any magic potion for curing these problems, but it does shine a light upon some of the people who are trying one day at a time to do what they can to heal the pain felt by these communities, and by themselves.