Entries tagged with “The Interrupters”.

The following incident from my years in Rogers Park has been on my mind a lot after repeated viewings of The Interrupters:

I still remember how beautiful it was that day. A freak February thaw had brought a week of sunny skies and balmy temperatures to Chicago. Unfortunately, the weather coincided with an intensification of a long-simmering gang feud in my area, and the animosity between two rival neighborhood leaders had somehow spiraled out of control to the point where the honor of the entire Vice Lord and Gangster Disciple Nations became involved. A day before the shit had totally hit the fan, and cars and vans started streaming into the area dropping off foot soldiers from all around Chicago and vicinity. Groups of up to 50-60 guys armed with various weapons had been roaming the streets engaging in pitched battles.

This was something nobody (be they cop, citizen, or criminal) had ever seen before and myself and the other people in the fledgling CAPS program were on high alert (hell, everybody was on high alert). Rogers Park was one of the CAPS pilot districts and we had just put together a Beat Plan and were continually trying to organize against a full scale invasion of the neighborhood that had happened the previous Spring, but this was something completely beyond even what we had already been seeing. Ironically, it was the success of our initial efforts which contributed to sparking the conflagration that was now consuming the area.

The quality of the neighborhood had begun slipping several years before when a group of idiot douche bags (I met them once so I know of what I speak) bought all the big buildings in the area toward the end of the late 1980s “no money down” real estate craze. When the bubble invariably burst, they just walked away from all their properties, which went into foreclosure and were then abandoned and/or purchased by slimy slumlords. Over the next few years the neighborhood changed from a bucolic middle class polyglot of many races, ethnicities and backgrounds into an increasingly sketchy and distressed one, with friendly conversations on the sidewalk between neighbors being replaced by street drug sales and trashy assholes just hanging out drinking.

The slide turned into a plunge in the Spring of 1994, when a Vice Lord “District Manager” (for want of a better term) was released from prison and was given Rogers Park and Evanston as his territory. He was particularly ambitious and well organized; and one day there were suddenly five guys on every corner slinging crack, heroin and whatever else the street addict desired, as well as several 24/7 high volume crack houses around the vicinity- including one in the third floor apartment above my wife and I. Pushed into a corner, we began working with other folks in the neighborhood and various community groups under the auspices of the pilot CAPS program.

At first our efforts seemed laughable in the face of the entropy storm that had overtaken the area, but by the end of the summer our faction was starting to gain some traction as our dogged work and unconventional tactics (like putting up gaudy flyers to scare away drug buyers) were starting to bear fruit. The most notable change being that the District Manager (I will call him Bill) moved his “office,” which had previously been on the corner outside our first floor walk up apartment, a block south to avoid our scrutiny and constant (polite) requests to move himself elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this moved him right on to the turf line between his vast Vice Lord territory and that of a small enclave of Gangster Disciples further south on Damen Avenue (affiliated with a larger GD faction over by the Howard L). Friction between Bill’s crew and the GD’s soon flared into a brawl where the GD crew leader (Sean) got his face severely smashed in with a baseball bat. When Sean got out of the hospital several weeks later he was primed for vengeance and gun play became more commonplace, leading up to whatever situation it was that involved the honor of both Nations and the full out war that was now happening on the sunny day in question.

It was late afternoon and during that brief period right after the elementary school down the block let out where all the kids that weren’t involved with gangs (FYI-95%) would quickly scurry home. Battles had been going down all day, and these were not just random skirmishes, these were regimented. Earlier that morning I had watched a car with an open trunk filled with sticks and ball bats slowly roll down the street with two young guys walking behind calmly pulling them out and dropping them along the sidewalk and parkway, their demeanor like that of a couple city workers planting tulips in the median. That way soldiers roaming the area when a police car rolled by could just drop their weapons and move on knowing there would be another one strewn somewhere ahead of them (the quick melting of huge snow banks in the previous week had also left the ground littered with thousands of beer and liquor bottles which had been chucked into them). Several months of post-Bill-Invasion conditions (including occasional death threats from he and his crew) had steeled me to a lot of things, but this was some scary shit.

Not that the Police were anywhere to be found anyway. Already loath to respond to calls on those three blocks of Damen Avenue and their side streets that had been designated the battlefield, they had been pretty scarce since things had started the day before, only streaming in en masse after something so massive happened that the flood of 911 calls couldn’t be ignored anymore. Even our normally proactive and badass third watch beat cops seemed flustered by this unprecedented flurry of open warfare, not that I could blame them.

The instinct to get home before things started up again was being trumped by the unusually beautiful day, and a small group of 12 or 13 year old nerdy neighborhood kids were dawdling on the corner of Damen and Birchwood. I was sitting in the window of my first floor walk-up on the Northwest corner waiting for the next battle to start so I could call 911 and hopefully spur them into sending somebody. I had just gotten a call from a fellow CAPS person down the street that there was a big bunch of Vice Lords gathering at their rally point in a fast food parking lot at Howard and Damen, so I knew something was going to go down soon and I am wishing these kids would get their asses home. But they are fluttering about excitedly as tweens do; wired out of their minds by the end of the school day, the lovely weather, and the adrenaline from witnessing the insanely furious fighting of the previous day and night.

I don’t know exactly how many GD’s were in the group that came storming up Damen Avenue from the south. I heard over my police scanner several minutes later that someone who had called 911 apparently described it as “a million dudes” (the dispatcher had great fun imitating the guy’s voice) but I was so stunned by the river of rage rolling north that at first I just sat and dumbly stared. Damen Avenue was completely clear of cars because everyone was parking a few blocks away to try and avoid having a brick or a bat smash their windshield. A fast moving wave of guys standing shoulder to shoulder filled the entire street from building to building and stretching back at least a half block, all carrying golf clubs, bats, sticks, bricks and stones and literally screaming bloody murder. How many? Five hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? What the fuck is going on?!!!

The nerdy kids were stunned at first too, and one of them made a terrible mistake and ran west on Birchwood instead of north on Damen where he might have made his escape down an alley and away from the battle. A wave of the GD’s peeled off and surrounded him in seconds, thirty or so of them massing around to take turns kicking and stomping and whomping him as I sat horrified and paralyzed, making weird mewling noises like a panicked toddler.

After a minute or two they drifted away to rejoin the main group now facing off with the Vice Lords at the end of the block, leaving what looked like a bloody pulp laying on the sidewalk. I finally snap out of it and run to dial 911, thinking this kid has got to be dead. When I get through, I begin describing the situation and begging the operator to send an ambulance for him. “How do you know he’s dead?” she asks. More fun with 911.

While the operator is dicking me around and the battle is raging back and forth up the street, I see the kid’s mom and sister come from around the corner where they lived and carefully try to rouse him. Holy shit, he’s conscious and getting up! They help him to his feet and gently support him as he hobbles and limps away. At this point I realize that I wouldn’t be doing him a favor by getting him an ambulance, as he would face police pressure to testify and be in for more trouble no matter how it played out. I hang up.

I hear from my scanner that several calls have gone out and in another minute a swarm of police cars arrived and the remaining combatants (the battle had mostly subsided by then anyway) dropped their weapons and disappeared to the four winds. The battle had ended for now.

The war raged on for a few more days until a massive and slightly psychotic show of presence from CAPS people and other fed-up neighbors seemed to blunt the fever of the conflict and regular Chicago winter conditions returned, but that is a story for another time.

The nerdy kid eventually healed from his horrific beating. I would sometimes see him around the L station heading to or from the new school to which he had transferred after his recovery. His limp went away in a year but the haunted look in his eyes stayed long afterward. I still think about him when the weather starts getting nice and my residual anxiety at the approach of spring, still leftover from those times, begins to gnaw at me. Lately I wonder what might have happened if there had been someone around back then who could have actually tried to intervene when Bill and Sean’s tiff first began. Who might have interrupted the spiral of aggression before it became a tornado that consumed a neighborhood and turned a nerdy kid whose only sin was picking the wrong direction to flee into a bloody mass of tissue slumped motionless on a sidewalk.





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.

Kartemquin Films. This wonderful Chicago film institution can best be summed up by their Mission statement:


Our Mission

Kartemquin Films is a home for independent filmmakers developing documentary as a vehicle to deepen our understanding of society through everyday human drama. Focusing on people whose lives are most directly affected by social and political change and who are often overlooked or misrepresented by the media, Kartemquin’s films open up a dialogue, both in communities and between the general public and policymakers.

Kartemquin documentaries are supported by civic engagement strategies that are developed with local and national partners to foster understanding, change thinking, and build support for social change. As a locally and nationally-recognized media arts organization, Kartemquin acts as a trusted bridge between communities and the media, fosters the growth of emerging filmmaking voices passionate about social issues and media policy, and encourages staff and stakeholders to play a role in advocating for a strong public media.


These are the words of an organization that has not only shined a light into how we live our lives but has also illustrated ways in which those lives could be better lived. Though it’s most well known as the company that made Hoop Dreams (1994) a reality, Kartemquin Films is a long-standing Chicago institution. Since its inception in the late 1960s, Kartemquin has been a thriving hub for socially conscious documentary filmmakers. In 1998, the Chicago Film Critics Association presented Kartemquin partners Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal with the “Big Shoulders” award, honoring their “ongoing efforts to promote filmmaking [that] best exemplifies the bold, innovative, and independent spirit of Chicago.” And in 2007, Kartemquin received one of eight international MacArthur Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions.

Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition has much more about the beginnings and early history of Kartemquin films, but now I want to introduce a new weeklyish segment, Kartemquin Korner (sorry, I just can’t resist the cutesy hometown newspaper-esque misspelling); where I will spotlight a particular Kartemquin Film. The first installment will be about the second most renowned  Kartemquin film, The Interrupters (2011).