Peacemaking informed by 500 years in prison

On Dec. 16, I went to see The Interrupters. It follows three violence interrupters who work on the south and west sides of Chicago with Ceasefire—an organization with a proven record of reducing shootings in neighborhoods around Chicago. The Englewood neighborhood saw a 34% reduction in shootings through Ceasefire’s work.

Violence interrupter Cobe Williams + Lil’ Mikey
Photo by Aaron Wickenden/Courtesy of Kartemquin FilmsThe movie is a slice of day-to-day life for Ceasefire staff, known as Violence Interrupters. From the summer of 2009 through the spring of 2010, we watch Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra as they seek to personally engage with victims and perpetrators and, perhaps most importantly, victims and their friends on the edge of becoming perpetrators.

All three of the interrupters have a personal history of involvement with gangs and violence themselves. They understand what’s going on for the kids and young adults (age 14-25), but they also have credibility. Ameena is the daugher of Jeff Fort, a high profile gang leader, and she made her own name for herself. Cobe and Eddie both served prison time. At one point at a staff meeting, a Ceasefire leaders says there is "500 years of jail represented here, that’s a lot of wisdom."

As someone who has spent my whole life in the Mennonite Church and many years with Christian Peacemaker Teams, The Interrupters is an introduction to peacemaking done in a very different way.

This movie does not explicitly talk much about systemic issues like racism or economic injustice, but all but one of the Ceasefire leaders featured are men and women of color confronting violence in a language and style that is their own, not imposed or borrowed. This is not mediation done Sunday school style. My wife Charletta describes it this way:

"By matching the intensity of words and anger, they validate the experience of pain and trauma, yet urge youth not to respond with violence. In the heat of the moment, they plead with victims not to retaliate or they will end up in jail, maybe dead. Let it rest, walk away, what’s done is done, where does violence get you?"

The principles of restorative justice are on display. There’s a scene where a 17-year -old boy who has spent two years in jail goes back to apologize to the people in the barber shop he robbed. One of the women who was there when he robbed them tells the ex-robber exactly how painful and traumatic that moment was for her and her family over the last three years. The pain and anger are not glossed over. In fact they add credibility to the redemptive moment.

The theory behind Ceasefire is that violence spreads like an epidemic. Just like society used to see tuberculosis or plague victims themselves as the problem, today we usually individualize violence. Instead, Ceasefire treats violence as we would an epidemic: by stopping the spread. They identify the spread of violence as a two step process:

  1. The grievance. It might be that someone disrespected you, or looked at your girlfriend. Or maybe they called the cops on you. Or maybe they killed your friend.
  2. Violent retaliation. This is addressing the grievance by fighting the person or pulling a gun and shooting. "If you don’t retaliate, people will just walk all over you," one girl in the film says. Violence is defense of your honor.

This means that a lot of the work of Violence Interrupters is relationship building with those most at risk, those who have been most exposed to violence and are on the edge of retaliation. But in some cases, there isn’t time for that. The camera is present for a number of bloodied heads and one attempted stabbing in which Ameena intervenes. We also follow Tio Hardiman, director for Ceasefire in Illinois, as he visits an Interrupter shot when he approached two men fighting.

The Interrupters is an important reminder for Mennonites that we don’t have the corner on peacemaking. We have a lot to learn from Ameena, Cobe, Eddie and all the other Violence Interrupters out there. See when the movie coming to your city or arrange your own screening.

Photo Caption: Violence interrupter Cobe Williams and Lil’ Mikey, Photo by Aaron Wickenden/Courtesy of Kartemquin Films