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.