Move over, Lisa Simpson, ’cause I’ve got a new hero

For my girls’ studies class this week, we were assigned to watch the 2012 documentary The Interruptors, featuring nonviolent activist and my new hero Ameena Matthews. I won’t lie—the film’s a tough watch. The story centers on interpersonal violence and homicide in the incendiary Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which is the site of daily shootings and—interesting tidbit—the homeland of the creepy 1890s serial murderer from The Devil in the White City. It’s a tough neck of the urban woods, and the documentary shows some unique community organizing efforts at quelling violence when the traditional tools aren’t enough.

It’s an understatement to say that people in this neighborhood deal with elevated levels of violence. On a good day, you can hear shots ring out down the street, and shit gets stolen from cars with a regularity that gives certain sections of town a George Miller feel. I’m an Illinois native with a father and brother who regularly work union carpentry and plumbing jobs (respectively) in Englewood and other rough Chicago climes. Their experience confirms what I saw on The Interruptors. People shoot at each other. People threaten. People are also shot at and get threatened. It can be a scary and tense place, and it’s a lot of people’s home.

Enter the Interruptors and Ameena Matthews, concerned mediators whose goal is to re-educate and stop violent situations before someone gets killed. This group felt a little different from what I’ve typically thought of as a neighborhood watch group—many in the group are current or former gangsters. Their message isn’t to get rid of their alliances or their gangs’ crime. It’s to save lives, pure and simple.

Ameena Matthews is a youngish mother who patrols Englewood in a hijab as a proselyte for her group’s philosophy of interpersonal understanding and nonviolence. Coming as she does from a devout faith system, she could easily harangue her audiences from a soap box, but she knows that won’t work. What she, and her group, does smacks of vigilante justice with a little bit of Gandhi and Biggie Smalls thrown in. She starts off by agreeing with young people who threaten to kill each other over a five-dollar bag of weed. She’s been where they’ve been. She knows what it’s like to get caught in the typical crime pattern of “just one more big score,” she knows that you have to command respect, and she knows what that thinking does to people. She knows where the violence comes from, and she’s simply had enough.

The film shows Ameena and other activists hitting the streets to spread the word that it’s not worth the risks to kill over turf or money or women or anything, really. The group locates the violence problem as learned behavior, what an epidemiologist in the film calls a problem of “bad behavior, not bad people.” Ameena stands amid a group of squabbling Chicagoans and places her hand on a young boy, asking what favors we’re all doing this kid by resolving conflicts with blood. She asks, if he makes a bad choice and ends up in prison for life, is that on him, or on all of us? To her and to the group, common ground, education, tolerance, and a simple attitude of “it ain’t worth it” are the right tools to combat violence in a part of town where even the cops are scared to go.

As my screen dipped to black at the end of the film, I saw my reflection in my shiny iMac monitor (which felt an awful lot like one of those childhood books that ends with a mirror and says, “How about you?“). I come from a safe, small-town neighborhood, even though my family often works in unsafe urban neighborhoods, and I live in one of the lowest per-capita municipalities for crime in the known universe. The most jarring sign of neighborhood crime for me was that one embankment that got tagged and then immediately re-painted by the city. It’s just not in my backyard on a daily basis, so it’s always been easy for me to think of interpersonal violence as a distinctly urban problem, something that police officers and legislation can fix. As I grow though—and dig deeper in graduate work and a Malcom X-ian desire to make a library my alma mater—I’m starting to read and absorb more personal stories from the front lines of urban violence that show me how and why these things happen, and how it’s not something we should just throw cops at. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson interviews southern migrant and former sharecropper Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who at one point in the book discusses her participation in her neighborhood watch group in Chicago. Ida Mae talks about buying her first home in Chicago after working like crazy for Campbell’s, recounting the white flight panic that devalued homes in her neck of town. What was once a happy and safe neighborhood turned quickly into an area that social bigotry and racism devalued and morphed into a site for under-policing, little urban maintenance, and plummeting home and business values. As Ida Mae grew into retirement, she watched from her window as kids she knew bought and sold drugs, committed theft, and fought in the streets. She had the unique perspective of watching all of this happen over a period of decades. So when she stood at her community watch meetings, she located the fault on how we raise our kids and on what generations of disenfranchisement can do to people. She regularly starts a dialog with the violent types and other criminals prowling her neighborhood, knowing that it’s the system that’s broken, rather than the people trapped within it. For Ida Mae and for Ameena—both certifiable bad asses by my estimate—the tools of change don’t come from incarceration or preachiness but from mutual understanding and mediation. These activists teach us to think of violence in a different, and actually effective, way. It’s bold. It’s inspiring. And, as their progress shows, it just might work.


He Hit Me (And It Felt Like Structural and Culturally Reinforced Violence against Women)

Maybe it’s just the bed head and the yelling, but Courtney Love sort of changed the way I thought about the 1962 cage-rattler “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” I’m a typical millennial rat in that my mind immediately goes to a “savage times” conclusion that this song was just written in a time when smacking up your old lady out of jealousy was just fine. But it really didn’t happen like that. The song was written with an irony that my era-elitism totally missed at first glance. Rather than endorsing violence, the song is actually a poignant—and quite intentional—reflection of domestic violence and the way we all just kind of accept it when it happens to us.

While the original rendition by R&B girl group The Crystals is as much an indictment of domestic, gender-based violence as the ratty, third-wave sensibility roared forth by Courtney Love and Hole decades later, the idea came home a lot more clearly to me when framed in tones marked by ’90s anger rather than trilling with all the girly charm of ’60s divahood.

After being asked to think of this song critically and to engage with it as a feminist text, I learned from the Interwebs that the song was originally released with a genuine, Courtney Loveian nod to feminism, decrying female deference to male brutality as a dangerous confusion with real love. The original song slightly predated Audre Lorde’s pro-anger branch of feminism and Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” brand of angry self-defense, so the song’s anti-violence message is couched in the script of lulling, feminine R&B. The 1960s original employs a handful of deliberately foreboding elements—heavy drum beats and a sluggish tempo reminiscent of a brainwashing chant—but the effect is largely a major-key, typical girl-group progression. In that way, the song is a dizzyingly modern art piece on how we intentionally camouflage relationship violence as romantic jealousy and conflate a desire to physically harm a straying other, with genuine love. Knowing the song’s background and authorship, it’s clear that the relatively chipper and upbeat tone is intentional. It’s meant to stand as a counterpoint between violence and the almost narcotic indifference of the abused, the way that women back then had a knack for allowing this kind of thing in a socially reinforced feminine deference. But the song’s veiled happy attitude didn’t stop people from noticing that the song sounds a lot like an anthem to abuse, released at a time when Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was just about to make mass-digestible the work of Simone de Beauvoir, and when the womanist movement had enough trouble squashing Jim Crow, let alone achieving gender parity. In that context, and without knowing that the song was written specifically to show how ludicrous it is to accept violence as love, it’s easy to see why people wanted this thing pulled from the air waves for sending a brutal message.

Jump forward a few decades and put the same words in the mouth of a punk rocker, and the message seems a little more clear. Hole’s version feels like it’s been rendered in a more depressing key (though after years of neglecting my music theory books in favor of Kate Millett, I can’t be certain) and Love’s vocal style lends the feminist reading that Lorde and X and others fought for when they said it was okay to be angry to get your point across and affect real change. In Love’s mouth, “He Hit Me” feels less like The Crystals’ numb act of putting on a good face and more like the cry of a woman who has accepted this very real violence against her. The newer version feels like a throwback to the 1960s sentiment that guys will do that when they get jealous, that it was just as “not okay” back then as it is today, yet it’s still happening. Love’s version feels tired, beaten, defeated. As such, it marks a very exhausted feminist question of why this kind of thing still needs to be said. Her portrayal of the same poetry, decades later and in the aesthetic of anger and defeat, reminds us that this isn’t a “women back then” thing, but a “women all the time” thing.

To break it down further, the 1960s version feels to me, with its happier overall tone, like a snarky nod to everything that was expected of women before the second wave really got going. It’s fairly pretty and adheres to a standard of mainstream art that requires aesthetic, beauty, and delicacy from women. When we move the same lyrics and progressions a few decades later to Hole, when it’s more acceptable for a bona fide artist to let down her beehive and be a little bit messier and angrier, the nuances of the first version snap into clear focus. Listen to the two back to back, and it’s easy to hear a mother and a daughter singing the same sad song, only with yet another generation of oppression folded into the end product. It’s an interesting study in oppression versus time. Americans talk all the time about our post-feminist utopia, where thongs grow on trees and women can get any job they want and be June Clever, Samantha Jones, and Wonder Woman all rolled into one. But is that really where we are? Have we really gotten anywhere since 1962, when we sang about taking a backhand with womanly grace and understanding? Or will this song always hit too many women, way too hard?