This story is over 5 years old.


Do You Want a Job Breaking Up Gang Fights in Chicago?

It involves being surrounded by people who are determined to kill each other and trying to persuade them not to.

Filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The War Tapes) recently made a film, called The Interrupters, about three violence interrupters in Chicago. These guys' job is to find violence, or the potential for it, get themselves in the middle of the situation and stop it. This can involve talking in a park with someone who needs help, house visits, and counseling. It can also mean being surrounded by people who are determined to kill each other and trying to persuade them not to.


The whole idea of violence interrupters is the brainchild of Dr. Gary Slutkin. Once a doctor dealing with the prevention of more conventional illnesses, now Slutkin's work centers around his idea that bad behavior spreads through a distressed population just like a virus does. By extension, he believes that humans are momentarily "infected" with badness and anger, rather than being innately nasty themselves.

I called up Steve to ask him about the film he's made.

VICE: Hi Steve, how are you doing?

Steve James: Hi, I'm all good.

Cool. The title of your film refers to violence interrupters in Chicago. Could you explain what one is?

Violence interrupters are individuals who work for this organization, CeaseFire. They are typically ex-gangbangers, drug dealers, convicts, or sometimes all three who are now working in the very neighborhoods where they once wreaked havoc and were part of the problem. Now they mediate violence in the streets.

Why did you want to make the film?

I was drawn to the idea when I learned about violence interrupters from an article by Alex Kotlowitz, the film's producer. We had both seen the costs of urban violence. The two lead characters in Hoop Dreams [James' 1994 doc about two young African American boys trying to make the NBA] both suffered tragedy after we finished filming—Arthur Agee's father Bo was murdered in 2006, and William Gates' brother, Curtis, was murdered in 2001. Seeing the impact that those murders had on those two guys and their families was pretty hard to shake, so we decided to focus more attention on this issue.


The film was first shown in the UK around the time of the August riots. What was the reception like in that context?

I literally got there the day after the Mark Duggan got shot by police. While I could see how upsetting it was for the people in London, there were certainly similar themes being bandied around about why this was happening: people feeling a lack of hope, people feeling that the police are the enemy. These are all themes you see in the United States. People saw a lot of parallels with the realities that give rise to frustration.

How would you say the US differs to the UK in that respect?

I think the difference is that, in America, people end up taking a lot of that frustration and anger and hopelessness out on each other, rather than by doing the more public thing and destroying property.

So how do you become a violence interrupter?

Well they start as outreach workers, working in more traditional community work. They do some training before they become interrupters, but the most significant training they get is the life experience they have in gangs: being able to handle conflict, step into situations and be clear-headed. It's a skill you can't learn.

Their CVs must read like crim-sheets.

Yeah! I was saying to a friend, their resumes are a huge liability for about every job you could ask for except this one.

The Interrupters - The three violence interrupters from the film in Steve's words.


Ameena Matthews - "Ameena is one of the only women interrupters and the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the most notorious and powerful gang leaders in the history of Chicago and US crime. She worked for a big drug dealing operation in Chicago and as an enforcer. Now she's a devout Muslim and a mother and wife."

Eddie Bocanegra (right) - "We wanted to follow at least one Latino interrupter. Eddie really interested us because he committed the ultimate act of violence: murder. When we first started following him he'd been out of prison a couple of years. What made Eddie fascinating to follow is that, a) he was still living very much with the guilt of the murder he'd committed 16 years earlier and, b) he's a real thinker about these issues, he thinks outside the box, like with this art class that he sets up."

Cobe Williams (left) - "Cobe Williams served, like, four different stints for everything from two counts of attempted murder, to selling drugs. He is really a bit of a teddy bear. He's well-liked in the community he comes from and people feel comfortable enough with him to seek help. His father was murdered when he was just a child, so violence was very much part of his life."

One thing that struck me is that the interrupters never get self-righteous about the things that they and the people around them have done.

Exactly, they don't sit in judgement because they remember what it's like to be there and what lured them to it. In some cases, it's desperation, sure. But there's also an attractive quality to that life in the streets, undeniably. Ameena talks about "Guns, drugs, parties, fun!" She's not saying that like it was terrible, she's talking about it like she remembers it. Cobe's the same, he brags about kicking off riots, he smirks when he's talking about gangbanging. They don't deny that.


In some of the scenes there's quite a high level of violence going on, I'm thinking of one scene in particular where a guy gets hit in the face with a rock whilst a woman is running around nearby with a kitchen knife. Were there ever issues with safety during shooting?

I never really felt in any real danger and that was largely down to the interrupters we were with. One time, this guy was after Alex [Kotlowitz, producer]. At first I made my attempt to mediate and step in, but that didn't work so Ameena had to step in. Another time we filmed with Eddie in a neighborhood with an ex-gangbanger. He was the guy that Eddie had killed someone on behalf of, in retaliation. This guy had been shot and was in a wheelchair. Eddie was trying to get him to quit the life, but the guy said, "No, you've made your choices, I've made mine." Later, the word came down to Eddie from a very high-up gang leader that he wasn't happy with us using that scene in the movie. We had to cut all that out. I can't even tell you the name of the guy.

Why did the gang leader decide that?

This was about a gang leader feeling like he would lose control of his guys if he allowed this. And from his point of view, I totally understand.

An interrupter gets shot in the film, does that happen a lot?

I think that was the first time. We were with another interrupter called Swank, an older guy, very experienced, and even he wasn't able to escape the bullets when they started firing. It's dangerous work. I think part of what allows them to do this is that they've lived in that world for so long. They've grown up being shot at and they've grown up shooting at people.


Did they recover?

The guy in the movie, he left, it was enough for him. Swank, who was shot in his legs, was out for a while but he's back on the job now.

In one scene, people get close to shooting each other over five dollars, which seems ridiculous—could you unpick that a bit?

Yeah, it was very tense in that room. There's a tendency to see a story like that and think, "This is ridiculous, who are these people?" And it is. Violence over a five dollar bag of weed is silly. But Ameena later explains it well. She talks about the sense of powerlessness people feel in their lives, so they focus on the one thing they can control, which is their reputation. Ameena talks about the archetypal kid: "You wake up in the morning and there's nothing to eat… and you're wearing hand-me-down clothes… maybe your mom's boyfriend has abused you… by the time you get to school, somebody bumps into you: They're the one who's gonna get it." The other thing she talks about is things building up over your whole life and then they're unleashed in 30 seconds of rage which can literally end your life or see a profound change, like maybe you're off to prison.

One point made in the film is that not all violence is gang related.

Yeah, that is a myth. Tio, who runs the CeaseFire program, estimated that 70 percent of violence is not gang related. Gangs are an easy explanation. Blaming everything on gangs is an easy way out, a one-size-fits-all explanation. It's also a way of saying "we don't have to care about it" because they're organized, so they must be bad people. "They get what they deserve if they come to a bad end," or whatever. Also, kids end up in gangs rarely—if ever—out of a desire to carry out criminal behavior. It's about protection and belonging and a whole host of reasons, although the criminality comes with it.

Interesting. Would you go back to Chicago for a follow-up?

If I could be I would still be out there.

The Interrupters is currently screening, click here for details. The DVD is out December 5th.