Violence, Redeemed: "The Interrupters" Follows Reformed Felons Driven Back to Crime to Stop It

Violence, Redeemed: "The Interrupters" Follows Reformed Felons Driven Back to Crime  to Stop It
Interrupter Ameena Matthews
(Courtesy of Cinema Guild)

In 2009, 460 people were murdered in Chicago, a city notoriously plagued withcountless other acts of violence from day to day. In a new film, "TheInterrupters," Steve James, the Oscar-nominated director of "Hoop Dreams,"documents the citizens who are trying to reverse the tide of violence byintervening in conflicts before blood is shed.

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Co-produced by award-winning writer Alex Kotlowitz, "TheInterrupters" focuses on members of CeaseFire, a project founded in 2000 by Dr.Gary Slutkin that sends mediators, or interrupters, into urban war zones toease tense situations before they erupt into violence. From 2009 to 2010, Kotlowitzand James filmed more than 300 hours of footage on the streets of Chicago, once evenbecoming the victims of theft — fortunately enough, at the time they were withan interrupter who was able to convince the thief to return their cameraequipment.

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Interrupters are citizens with criminal pasts themselves —former murderers, drug dealers, and gangsters from the same area — who are able to talk down fellow citizens, sympathizing with their grievances while dissuading them from committing violent acts. "Thosesituations are not alien to them," said James in an interview withARTINFO. "That makes a big difference and they have confidence that theyknow how to deal with it and step in and do it the right way." Kotlowitzagreed. "You have to be from those neighborhoods," he said. "Youhave to have all those connections."

The three interrupters who serve as the subjects of the filmare unified by their reform. Ameena Matthews, the daughter of one of the city'smost feared gang leaders, Jeff Fort, grew up mimicking her father'slifestyle, having been part of a gang and doing illegal drugs until sheeventually converted to Islam. Ricardo "Cobe" Williams did threestints in jail for attempted murder and drug-related charges, and EddieBocanegra served 14 years in jail for a murder he committed at age 17.

To watch the film is gut-wrenching; senseless murders happendaily, some to innocent children. Mothers lose sons to murder or a life ofcrime, while kids who look up to their older counterparts in the neighborhoodstart copying the fighting they witness.

"Living in communities like that, you just constantlyfeel like you're dominated by everything else, all these forces, all theseother people, and the one way you can dominate over others is throughviolence," said Kotlowitz.

The tension in the film is eased at times, punctuated by touching moments portraying the interrupters’ devotion to their mission amidstadversity. Williams patiently stuck by Flamo, a recently released inmate whowas tempted to hurt someone who had snitched on his mother, resulting in herarrest. "If Cobe hadn't been there to mediate that in the moment, Flamocould be in prison right now with a life sentence," said James. "Cobewould call him. Cobe would take him out for jerk chicken. Cobe stayed connectedwith him."

Both James and Kotlowitz developed close friendships withthe interrupters they filmed. "One of the purposes of working on somethinglike this is that you feel like your life is enriched in many ways," saidKotlowitz.

It looks like the CeaseFire's methods are making a difference: In 2008 Professor Wesley G. Skogan, an expert on crime and policing at Northwestern University, completed a study that found that the program successfully reduced shootings and killings by 41 percent to 73 percent. The murder rate in Chicago has dropped drastically since Dr. Slutkin founded the organization in 2000, from 628 that year to 435 in 2010 — the lowest it has been in 45 years.