Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Interrupters

According to the media, Chicago (and the US in general) is erupting in violence. Youth violence is at an all time high, with seemingly hundreds of shootings a year. Despite the relative safety of the world (according to Steven Pinker et al.) the world for an individual in a lower-income neighbourhood, a predominantly black community, the world is not safe at all. People catch stray bullets all the time, and I don't mean in their hands. The Interrupters follows an anti-violence initiative in Chicago over the course of a year; specifically looking at three so-called "interrupters" of violence. Their methodology includes respect earned on the street from their past, training in conflict mediation, and buckets of common sense.

There's something to be said about the type of "art" that energizes the consumer. I normally don't get fired up about films such as Drive or Good Old Fashioned Orgy because they are pablum. They are escapist, an easy way to pass the time. There's nothing inherently wrong with escapism - in fact, one could argue that it is indispensable in helping deal with the turmoil of the world. However, films such as those do not fire me up in a way like Richard Price, George Pelecanos, J. M. Coetzee, or David Simon do. Whenever you engage with writers like that, there's an instantaneous feeling of "this is important" and not in the way Ulysses feels important. Important in the sense that I feel like the world needs changing and there's no way I am going to do it by sitting here, typing on a computer for my blog that less than one hundred people read.

The Interrupters is exactly like that. Let me give you an example. After seeing this documentary, the National Security Minister of Bermuda vowed to implement a similar program to CeaseFire, the anti-violence initiative. You can read about this by clicking this link. This speaks to how powerful a film this is. Politicians are even standing up and noticing.

Why is this film so powerful then? What is it about The Interrupters that causes me to want to quit my job and devote my time to improving the lives of individuals in my own hometown? Part of it is that The Interrupters is well-shot, well-edited and quite effective in demonstrating the talents of the interrupters being documented. The three selected for focus are charismatic, empathetic, street-smart, book-smart, well-spoken, and completely realistic about the world. All three of them come from a history of violence, one spending 14 years for murder, and all three of them share a history of gangbanging in their youth. The sole female of the three, one of the few females in CeaseFire, is the daughter of notorious Chicago gangleader Jeff Fort.

There's a scene in which Aveena, the aforementioned female of the trio, visits a "press conference" held in an neighbourhood by the father of a slain child. The father chastises the media for failing to help, simply observing their grief. As the white people disperse, a large group of black male youths come up the street. Their intent is not clear - are they paying respect, or have they come simply to see what the fuss is about? At this point, Aveena, a short black Muslim, marches up to them and gives them the dressing down of their lives. She excoriates them for even contemplating revenge for this crime. She singles out a boy, and demands to know who he belongs to in the group. When none of the teens admit to watching over them, Aveena gives them another dressing down. She tells them that this boy, this shortie, this baby is watching all of them and is learning from them. The teens are responsible for it.

What makes this most impressive is that Aveena is getting in their faces, shouting, chastising, criticizing, and showing a lack of respect for the men. Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows that most homicides, especially lower-income individuals, is based on a perceived imbalance of respect. The victim was responsible for a grievance or a disrespect that the murderer eventually punishes. The homicide is justified by the perceived grievance. Pinker shows that most homicides are not arbitrary or financially motivated but simply by the intangible and ephemeral concept of honour. The black youths in this film go on and on about having to fight because of perceived honour. The fact that Aveena, a small female, gets in the faces of dozens of strapped angry youths is testament to the fearlessness and courage of the interrupters.

This isn't the only scene like this. There is a scene in which the head of the CeaseFire initiative visits one of his interrupters in the hospital. The man had been shot attempting to talk some youths out of a fight. The director, Tio Hardiman, gets choked up, apologizing to the man, trying to tell him how much he appreciates the sacrifice made. It's quite powerful. It shows that there is no way to "beat" the system of violence, but simply interrupt for moments.

The whole movie is like this. Cobe, the black male of the trio, is a father and a stepfather who lives in the suburbs with his wife, a nurse. However, he came from streetgangs and violence, and went to prison for a decade for attempted murder. He knows exactly what these boys are going through. Near the end of the film, this kid named Mikey gets out of prison for armed robbery. Cobe takes him to the salon where he committed the robbery and has him apologize to the owners. It's an absolutely devastating scene. Mikey takes the verbal punishment from the owner, and she attempts to explain the impact that this decision had on her life, and how he'll never understand. She realizes how big of a deal this is, somebody apologizing for his crime, this takes a lot from a person, she stands up and forgives him, hugs him.

Not everything goes perfectly, though. Throughout the year, Aveena is working closely with a nineteen year old girl who has been released from a youth remand center. She must follow parole, go to school, and stay out of the game. Aveena takes her to a nail salon for a manicure, the first the girl has ever received. Aveena takes her for a ride on a carousel, the first the girl has ever done. Later, the girl is being harassed by some youths, attempting to rile her up and get her to fight, but she wisely calls Aveena, who interrupts the violence over the phone, simply with words. It's stunning. But, when it seems like Aveena has broken through to the girl, things change. It turns out that the girl hadn't been showing up for class, and when Aveena feels personally betrayed, the girl walks away. Less than 24 hours later, she has broken parole and is back in the youth remand center. Aveena visits her in the epilogue, where she is greeted with open arms, but not a clear understanding of why things have gone the way they have.

The film ends on a realistic note, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The reality is that with crime, a lack of police involvement, and the sheer ease of being the game, the idea of violence is too firmly rooted within the culture. One teen tells the camera, while working hard on building a pool, that he could make more money out on the streets, in less time, and be able to do what he wants when he wants. Then he says, "but I have a job" almost incredulously. He doesn't even believe that he's such a sucker. It's this mentality that needs to be interrupted.

The interrupters of CeaseFire are doing amazing work, but it's drops in an ocean. A larger and greater change needs to happen across the country. Pinker borrows from another academician and calls it The Civilizing Process. This doesn't say that black male youths are not "civilized" - far from it. It's simply that a large scale, multi-generational process needs to occur, one in which children are inculcated with empathy from an early age, in which teens understand that violence is an unending cycle, in which everybody is taught to think further into the future.

Pinker demonstrates that part of the medieval era's tenacious hold on violence is that peasants and poor people had no concept of decades down the road. It's impossible to imagine a future when it's too hard to make do on this very day. Part of the government's mandate in eliminating youth violence should be inculcating a concept of the future. Children aren't raised to imagine when they'll be forty. Youths in gang culture are famous for articulating a fatalistic or nihilistic worldview, in which they are predetermined to die young and leave behind a family.

Part of the Civilizing Process is figuring out the possibility of the future and removing this fatalism. Understanding that life goes on, with or without you is integral. If you can visualize yourself with a future, then you're more likely to want to be part of that future. If you have something to live for, you're less likely to take stupid risks such as rumbling in the streets or bringing a gun to a knife fight.

I've been thinking a lot about how to affect change in my hometown of Winnipeg. We have a large gang problem in the North End and inner city and part of it is due to economic factors, as with any inner city problem. Reams of articles and papers have been written on why the inner city develops into a war zone, with some of the blame being assigned to the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs. With the loss of the middle class comes the retreat of specific elements of the local economy and the invasion of spurious elements such as payday loan business, essentially legitimized loansharks.

My short term solution? Quite clever. Banking. Yes, banking. In Canada, banks are protected by the government, therefore they can never fall. (In the US, banks are private enterprises that can and often deteriorate.) What I propose is an initiative that helps bring banking back to the youths, in order for them to a) start appreciating the value of money, and b) start conceptualizing a possible future, one that is financially stable. We do this by taking Aboriginal bank employees and employees of other visible minorities, we take them into the inner cities, give the youths 20 or 50 bucks and help them set up a bank account. However, the trick isn't to simply give them money and have them forget about. These same bank employees have to forge a relationship over time, getting the youths to constantly think about the future. The fact that the same employees return to the same youth will create a sense of stability in the youths, which is fundamentally important to the system.

This plan only works in conjunction with other youth-targeted initiatives, such as the return of the community centre and the return of youth activities outside the home and within a structured system. Structure, stability and comfort are paramount to the web of plans that are needed in order to impact crime. Plus, this financial plan has the bonus of positively impacting the local economy. As an area of town increases in prosperity, so do the surrounding businesses. Once that happens, larger businesses will be attracted. This plan, while small, can have large positive outcomes, but it is on a large time scale. This will be hard to convince people of.

Obviously, I've gotten off topic, talking about my proposal for Winnipeg, considering this is a review of a documentary about Chicago. At the beginning of the review, I mentioned that few things get me fired up like this does. This is the other part of why The Interrupters is so successful (the other reason being the interrupters themselves, as outlined above). This film is a masterpiece not just as a narrative, not just because it's an indictment of the dysfunction of the larger social systems, but because it can cause the viewer to want to help. It's a war cry for peace. As Pinker has shown, peace is possible. It's just not something that can happen over night. You'll be thinking to yourself, "he's starting to sound like a hippie". Well, don't. I'm still realistic about the world and the fact that lower-income neighbourhoods will always attract violence and gangs. It's simply that we have a chance to make change, so why don't we?

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