July 13, 2012 \ Geoff Birmingham
The Interrupters: breaking cycles of violence in inner-city Chicago

A documentary about inner city ChicagoIn a post from awhile back, we shared some of our favorite documentary films, and Hoop Dreams was identified as “must-see.” It definitely lands in my all-time favorite top ten.

The Interrupters is another documentary by the same filmmaker, Steve James, who co-directed and produced the film with Alex Kotlowitz.  The personal story-lines in The Interrupters aren’t as powerful as those in Hoop Dreams, but it does give a window onto a world most of us know very little about, much less witness in-person.

The interrupters are former gang members who seek to interrupt the violence in Chicago through intervention and mediation. Because of their histories, they have the street cred that’s needed to engage the young people who are victims and perpetrators of violence. So that helps. But their job is still a daunting one.

It all boils down to this, it seems: many young people in impoverished communities believe that there is very little risk of losing much by committing acts of violence.  The only thing that is at stake is their personal honor. So if that honor is about the only thing a young kid feels he has possession of, how do you persuade him  to stand down from a fight if it means losing respect on the street? Many of them don’t want to even hear what the interrupters have to say. Others listen, try to follow the advice they receive, but still fail. With a rare few, the interrupters message seems to register.

It’s clear, then, that the street workers have an uphill battle, and the spike in violence this summer in Chicago that has made national news confirms this fact. So in this situation, the philosophy of one step, one kid at a time definitely applies. And it makes you respect the interrupters all that much more – not only for turning around their own lives, but the dedication they are demonstrating towards the lives of others.


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