Award-winning documentary on 'violence interrupters' airs on Frontline
by thenotebook on Feb 14 2012 Posted in Latest news
by Oscar Wang
Tonight is the television premiere of The Interrupters, a documentary that follows CeaseFire workers in Chicago. CeaseFire is an organization with a proven track record dedicated to reducing gun violence. Founded in Chicago 12 years ago, the program aims to “interrupt” violence before it happens.
Last fall, the organization reached Philadelphia’s streets in partnership with Temple University's Center for Bioethics, Urban Health and Policy.
Gun violence is a “public health epidemic,” according to Maria Davis-Bellamy, executive director of Philadelphia CeaseFire.
The medicine for this disease? A team of "interrupters" who carry out the CeaseFire mission of stopping shootings through community mobilization, youth outreach, public education, leadership involvement, and working with the criminal justice system.
"In order to stop a killing you have to be able to intercept whispers. You have to work with the ‘have-littles’ in America. And it's not easy work because there's no way to resolve conflicts without confrontation," says CeaseFireIllinois Director Tio Hardiman in the film.
The film follows three interrupters and their efforts to quell violence in Chicago. One of them is Ameena Matthews, whose father founded a well-known gang in Chicago. She shows that "interrupting" is as much about telling hard truths as it is about inspiring youth. "When I was about your age, I was making some real stupid decisions…that was [spilling] blood on my hands," she tells adolescents in one scene. In another, she embraces a teenager, "Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved? Absolutely."
In Philadelphia, the job of communicating such messages falls on the shoulders of four outreach workers, including Brandon Jones, 26.
“CeaseFire took me under their wing…[and] I started to see change working on individuals,” Jones told an audience last December at a workshop on youth violence sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.
Jones said that after being released from incarceration, he “hit the ground running” to turn around his life – and the lives of others. He believes that those working with CeaseFire are “the right messengers” who can see eye-to-eye with other high-risk individuals who usually are 14-25 years of age and have had prior run-ins with the law or have been involved in gangs.
Interrupters like Jones respond promptly to homicides and other shooting events, rushing to the scene like police officers. But instead of pulling out weapons, they encourage anyone who will listen to lay down their arms.
“We don’t want to be perceived as someone who will give information to cops,” he said. Instead, by working with communities and building trust, Jones believes interrupters can stop violence. “Now is the time for men and women like myself to stand up.”
And CeaseFire members are standing up – and making progress.
Davis-Bellamy, in an interview with the Notebook, says Philadelphia CeaseFire has recruited 51 “clients” and mediated more than 30 conflicts “that could have escalated into gun violence.”
She said that violence has dropped in the program’s initial rollout area of the 22nd Police District, Police Service Area #2, which stretches from 22nd and Lehigh to 33rd and Lehigh.
In the three months before the interrupters started working, there were 27 shootings, including homicides, in the area, she said. That number dropped to 21 in the first three months of the program, and 25 in the three months after that.
In January of this year, Davis-Bellamy said, “only one of the month’s 34 homicides occurred in the… district, which over the past two years has had the city’s highest number of homicides and shootings.”
But Philadelphia CeaseFire is not simply content with stopping shootings – it also wants to open up new doors of opportunity for at-risk youth.
Davis-Bellamy cites the example of a troubled young man who “had made some bad decisions in his life but had dreamed of owning a plumbing business…[but] didn’t know where to start.” Philadelphia CeaseFire helped the man find plumbing work and he is now working on his license and also developing a program for other Philadelphia CeaseFire clients to obtain one as well.
Davis-Bellamy called the film a “must see” for anyone concerned about ways to reduce violence in Philadelphia.
"I'm an interrupter myself,” Colbert joked. “But how do you interrupt violence? That sounds like a very dangerous thing to do."
Matthews smiled and wasted no time with her answer. "You're an interrupter in a rude way," she told the comedian. "I'm a violence interrupter in saving lives."
The Interrupters is directed by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz. It will air on PBS/WHYY/WLVT's Frontline at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 14 and will be available online. In addition to those viewing options, Davis-Bellamy promises: “We are planning to show the film at various locations throughout North Philadelphia as well at some of our area high schools.”