Missing from President Obama’s State of the Union Address, which was aimed so consistently at the economic problems of the middle class—the section of the population most likely to actually vote—was a confrontation with the nation’s most destructive, most virulent internal crisis: the poverty, criminality, and violence of the inner-city. It seems that nobody talks about this except the tabloids with their daily gory graphic reports of police raids, shoot outs, drug busts, and deaths and funerals, with the usual photos of mothers mourning a teenager killed for having “dissed” the member of a rival gang.
The PBS documentary series “Frontline” has compensated for Obama’s silence with “The Interrupters,” a two-hour report on an unusual group of neighborhood volunteers in Chicago called CeaseFire, formed for a specific narrowly defined purpose: decrease the number of killings stemming from angry one-on-one encounters.
The producer–director, Steve James, who gave us “Hoop Dreams,” and author Alex Kotlowitz of “There Are No Children Here,” focus on 2008, when 37 people were shot during one weekend and seven died. The opening sequence is a quick montage of TV news reports: nine people shot in 5 hours; high school honor student Gregory Robinson is the 28th to die this year; 124 people killed so far, about the same as the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan.
According to Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who has fought AIDS in Africa and wants to apply the same principles to CeaseFire, violence is like an infectious disease, and the best way to cut off the spread of an infection is to get it at its source. Here the source is the pent-up anger in the ghetto citizens who have, in various ways, been offended: called a name, approached the other’s girl friend, stolen some drugs, or welshed on a debt. The instinctive response is to strike back, often with a knife or handgun. The designated interrupter, because of background and personality skills, steps between the two parties and calms them down, talks them out of killing one another.
The appropriate background for an interrupter that enabled him or her to “talk the same language” is a criminal history. Ameena Matthews, an ex-gang enforcer, is the daughter of a notorious gang leader, Jeff Fort. When she was conceived he was 16 years old, as she grew up life was drugs, guns, parties, and fun. Cobe Williams served 12 years for drug trafficking and attempted murder. His role model father, a slick dresser with a big hat, was beaten to death with baseball bats when Cobe was eleven. Eddie Bocanegra, who teaches art, served 14 years for murder and specialized in stealing cars. He saw the older guys hanging out in the neighborhood with their fancy cars and women and decided he wanted to be like them. Now all three apply their life lessons to breaking up fights.
The camera guides us through summer, fall, and winter in an ugly graffiti-smeared neighborhood, to wakes and burials, and long talky meetings of the interrupters’ association, eavesdropping on personal conversations, or on a classroom scene where each child expresses fear of the neighborhood shootings. We get the names and ages — 19, 17, 19, 46, 21, 17 — of the season’s dead and view the street-side spontaneous memorials full of Teddy bears, children’s toys, flowers, and cognac bottles, and “I miss you” notes scrawled on walls. At a boy’s funeral we glimpse only the top of the red baseball hat the corpse is wearing in his coffin. Apparently the hat is to cover up the murderous destruction of his head. We get a few film clips where a man is struck down and killed with a big board and a woman chases a man with a knife.
From this viewer’s perspective, the film would have profited from more structure, fewer stock scenes of car-driving conversations, and many more subtitles, since the persons addressing one another don’t speak clearly and rely heavily on MF lingo to make themselves understood. A more serious question not addressed is whether their strategy to not deal with the whole problem of gangs, who are fundamentally the cause of the violence, is the best.
The message all viewers should take away for this important film is stated by Attorney General Eric Holder at a Chicago press conference. “This is not a local problem it’s an American problem.” Now he should tell that to his boss.
"The Interrupters" airs on Frontline on Tuesday February 14.
Raymond A. Schroth